Gollancz paperback £9.99
**** (4 stars) review by Christopher Geary
An SF Masterworks reprint of Stephen Baxter’s debut novel, Raft puts its space colonists in a weird universe where the force of gravity is a billion times stronger than Earth. It’s a fabulous realm where nebula gases are condensed into a breathable atmosphere so that people can live unsheltered in space, where the short-lived stars are only scant miles across, and the rains that fall like a hail of bullets are merely a distraction from the even greater environmental dangers of a dying galactic suburb.
Rees is a young miner, part of a ramshackle outfit working an asteroid-sized, burnt-out star for iron ore, whose intense curiosity leads him to the Raft, humanity’s base-camp in this strange shrunken cosmos. The Raft is a platform built upon the shell of a crashed starship, now hovering near an eternally hungry black hole. There, the ambitious hero learns of the fate that awaits the whole struggling community of survivors is the class-riddled military, scientific, and labour factions cannot settle their differences soon, and work out how to escape from the doomed island nebula.
Although it’s a rather episodic adventure, Raft maintains interest and a steady pace towards a gripping open-ended climax that may, unfortunately, be all too predictable if you are familiar with the 1950s SF classic movie When Worlds Collide. The great strengths of this story are Baxter’s startling ideas. For despite the seemingly outrageous premise the scenario is credibly and engagingly worked out with admirable attention to detail. The book has several moments when Baxter demonstrates a sharp authorial affinity with and genuine feel for a sense of wonder that’s all too rare in the genre of 1990s SF.
Raft remains is a minor miracle of human plotting and extreme cosmological speculative science.