While George Poole (first-person in the book, and British) was setting his father’s affairs in order after his death, he found a picture with him and a sister his age that he didn’t know he had. He also discovered that his father had been making monthly payments to a mysterious Catholic organization, the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. At the same time, he made a reacquaintance of his childhood friend Peter McLachlan. Peter was a bit of an eccentric geek, and was currently obsessed with the Kuiper Belt anomaly, a bright spot in the Kuiper Belt (the region of small planetoids past Pluto).
George started investigating his sister by asking the Catholic private school that his family had attended about a relative, which was a little hard, since he did not have a name. They, somewhat unwillingly, found her under his mother’s maiden name, Rosa Casella, but as soon as the topic of the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins (where Rosa had been sent) came up he was brusquely shown the door. Armed with a name, George paid a visit to his older sister, who had married an American and lived in Florida. They never got along warmly, but it got a lot colder after George asked about his sister, more because of unpleasant family memories than because of the chill that the mention of the Order seemed to create. She gave him the contact of a Jesuit priest, and for Uncle Lou, and in the course of conversation he learned that the family legend that one of the ancestors had been a British-born woman named Regina who made it to Rome in the fifth century was true.
Uncle Lou Casella had been an American soldier in WWII and involved in the liberation of Rome. While there he looked up family, and found sound hard-put Casellas. A woman from the Order who been a consort to Il Duce, bearing him thirteen children (at a surprisingly old age, and quite the looker even afterwards), found him from doing a genealogical search of the incoming GIs. He told her about the Casellas, and the Order provided medical care, and took the baby girl that the family could not care for. No one thought this a problem, for the Order was family. (Uncle Lou had also been involved in giving Rosa to the Order.)
George met up with his ex-wife for a walk of the remained Roman section of the Londinium wall (she expressed condolences for his father’s death). Peter met him at the end of the walk (which highlighted why they were no longer married). He had more information about the Kuiper Belt: something had disturbed it early in the solar system’s formation. Normally the planetoids would coalesce to form a planet, but they didn’t, because most of the material was removed from the Kuiper Belt region.
The narrative alternates between George and the story of his distant ancestor Regina. She born shortly after the Roman legions left Britain, but when she was seven years old, her father had died after castrating himself in penance for adultery. Her mother left, and Regina was taken by her uncle, a commander of a garrison on Hadrian’s Wall. In her early teens, her uncle was killed, and she left with her nurse, Cartumandua. Carta had been a slave in Julia’s house, assigned mostly to the task of raising Regina, and had stayed with her, despite having her freedom. She took Regina to her family who lived in a city nearby.
The city was in the process of falling down. The house of Carta’s father, Carausias, had once been a magnificent house, but it, too was falling into decay. Like Regina’s father, who did not have the money to repair his villa, Carausias did not have money for repairs, either. In some cases, such as the under-floor heating, workmen who could repair it could not be found. The city looked more like a countryside with walls, than a city. Trade was done mostly with barter, as coinage had grown scarce, since no one in the diocese of Britain was able to make coins.
Carausias’ son Amator clearly lusted after her, but she was much too young, and he was eighteen. Soon he went off to make his fortune in Gaul. He returned three years later with a friend, enticed her with the promise of a dance party, where he and his friend raped her. Amator and his friend were only stopping by, and left for other parts the next day, taking all his father’s money with him; Regina became pregnant. Shortly afterwards a fire started in the city and the family fled as the city burned.
They had no money, so they went to Carausias’ friend Arcadius, but the farm was abandoned. They had no other options, so they settled in a farm silo and tried to make a go of living on their own. They managed to make it through the winter, and then Regina had her baby, a girl she named Brica. Carta, however, developed cancer, and died. Shortly before she died, she told Regina that she was the one her father slept with that precipitated the ruin of Regina’s life. Regina was the one with the greatest will to live, and she held everyone together and told them what to do. Over the years (about twenty of them), she built the settlement into a sustainable farm as she welcomed other refugees and put them to work. One could not buy anything anymore, although that would presumably change when the Emperor came back. If they wanted something, they had to make it. Regina grieved that Brica was not getting the same civilized upbringing she had.
There were always bandits prowling around the edges of farms, and there were rumors that the Saxons were setting up a kingdom. Saxons killed all non-Saxons, so were to be feared, but no one had seen any yet. One day a band of soldiers and a Roman-looking man came to settlement. He called himself the high king, and told them that they needed to join him, as the Saxons were coming and he could not afford to have them give them shelter. Regina saw that they did not really have a choice, and asked if they could make iron (no one could, these days). They could. He took a liking to Regina’s feistiness, allowing them to join him as free people within the walls as her condition.
The man’s name was Artorious (pronounced Arthurius in the man’s Welsh accent). He was building his capital on an old Celtic hill fort, named the Caml hill after the nearby river. The iron-maker was a technology wizard named Myrddin, who took a dislike to her, but made good iron. Artorius was attracted to Regina’s strength and asked her to be his wife; she said yes as a cold calculation of whether it would keep her child alive another day. Regina took over management of the settlement, helping things to run smoothly, bringing back Roman civilization, except that Artorius was becoming more and more Celtic. Brica found a love interest in one of Myrddin’s apprentices, which bothered Regina. After thinking about it, she realized that if Brica married this apprentice, Brica’s future, a future of low-level civilization would dominate their future. Regina could not let that happen, because the past was so much more glorious than their present could ever become.
Artorious went to Londinium to convene a council of his alliance, and he took Regina with him (and Brica, at Regina’s request). Regina knew she had to leave somehow, and found the means in a urine-smelling trader. Passage across the ocean to Gaul required money—coin, which she had none. The merchant gave her passage in exchange for sexual favors from Regina and her daughter. Regina agreed to it (without her daughter’s knowledge). Using the merchant’s letter of credit they made it to Rome.
Rome was still a flourishing city, despite having endured a sack, and retained most of its monumental marble splendor. It was also a place of crowded, dirty, dark tenaments, which is where Regina and Brica lived. Regina had learned that Amator lived in Rome, so she visited him. He had grown wealthy by starting a shipping company. Regina informed him that Brica was his daughter, and blackmailed him money in order that she could stay in Rome long enough to find her mother. After months of dropping her name at mid-wealthy gatherings, she was sent a brass token for a seat in the Coliseum.
She arrived, finding the Coliseum sat more people than the biggest town she’d ever been to in Britain. Her mother arrived a bit late. Her mother’s sister had been a handmaiden to the Vestal Virgins, who had saved quite a bit of money while the cult was doing well in Rome, and there was still money left after Christianity ended the cult. Some of the Virgins, originally consecrated to purity for 30 years, had adapted, joining the church, becoming the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins, where they still dedicated their daughters to purity. Regina’s mother invited her and Brica to join them, which they did.
Regina had a much stronger sense of organization than anyone in the order. The Order needed income, and was already educating, so she offered education services to the public in exchange for a fee. The children lived at the Order until their studies were complete. Regina insisted on good quality record-keeping; one who did not remember one’s past was doomed to a short future. There were rumors that barbarian armies were advancing on Rome, so she expanded the catacombs that the Order’s house opened onto, and stocked them with enough food to last several weeks.
Brica’s daughter was engaged to a Roman with Regina’s blessing, but the day of the marriage was the day the barbarians attacked. Women and children were taken down below, and Regina assigned Brica’s new husband to guard the entrance. After the Vandals sacked Rome, the Order began expanding the catacomb tunnels and more and more took to living in the Crypt. It was down there that Regina, acting on instinct, refused to let her granddaughter get pregnant until Brica was no longer fertile, saying “sisters are more important than daughters.” She sensed it was good for the Order, because granddaughters diluted the blood (only 1/8th Regina’s blood) compared to daughters (1/4), and the family ties would be stronger with sisters. And one day she was called to see the Emperor (who, being a boy, was with his tutor, so she talked with his advisor in a startlingly amazing hall. The advisor asked for help funding the army to fight off Odoacre, and Regina realized that “normal” was gone and would never come back. Before Regina died she left three dicta: “Sisters are more important than daughters,” “Ignorance is strength” (there should be no leader, to prevent an arrogant leader from ruining everything, instead, each ignorant piece would collectively make the necessary local decisions), and “Listen to your sisters.”
By this point the book has transitioned to alternating between Regina’s story and a present-time girl in the Order, Lucia. Girls in the order (and people in the order are almost entirely female) grew up without becoming women—except for Lucia, who was surprised to experience her first period at 15, and embarrassed, and felt why-is-this-happening-to-me. She tried to keep it a secret, but she had to tell someone (you don’t keep secrets in the Order), and that someone eventually told Rosa Poole, who initiated something. Lucia was taken on a trip outside to the Pantheon as a life lesson and met a teenage American boy, Daniel. They met again at a park, and he asked to meet up with her, giving her a time and place he would wait for her every day, as Lucia’s handler, Pina, rushed her hastily off.
Rosa took Lucia to see her mother, one of the momma-nonnes. Her mother was the same woman that had been the consort to Il Duce, but very old looking. And pregnant. Rosa explained that Lucia had to pay back those times of being safe and happy in her childhood, surrounded by hundreds of sisters, never alone, always protected by people who would sacrifice themselves for her. After Lucia left on her own to see Daniel (being recovered by Pina shortly afterwards), Rosa said that romance was not allowed in the Order. The Order comes first; “in the Order, efficiency is everything.”
Shortly afterwards, Rosa took Lucia meet a man (Guiliano). She socraticly explained that every year a hundred people died, and needed to be replaced with a hundred new babies. Over the years the matres had increased from 3 to 9 to 27 (always multiples of 3, by Regina’s decree), so each matres needed to produce three babies a year. Shortly afterwards, her mother died, and Rosa took her to a room where she went through a ceremony and Guiliano copulated with her, even as she realized this was the end of her life as she knew it. Shortly after, she knew she was pregnant. Three months later, she gave birth, and her baby was taken away, despite her pleas, and put with the others. Two months later, she was pregnant again, despite not having slept with anyone. She researched with her cell phone and discovered that it was not normal for outside women to have a three month pregnancy or to have multiple babies a year. When she asked about this, her nurse took her cell phone away.
Daniel had given her a business card with his phone, in case she got spirited away again by Pina (as indeed happened). She called him and arranged to meet at a tourist church, where she told him what was going on. He had a hard time believing that she had had a full-term baby in three months, and was now pregnant again despite not having slept with anyone. He did understand her outrage when Pina showed up and admitted to having bugged her, and when Rosa showed up, she asked Daniel to hide her.
The backstory now having caught up to the present day, George arrives in Rome to talk with his Jesuit contact about his sister. The Jesuit priest is nice, takes him to a couple nice churches, but avoids the subject of the Order until George asks point-blank, and he gives her a contact number. George meets up with her in a cafe, and she is very sweet, and touches him a surprising amount, and emphasized that the Order was family. After she decided that he was not a threat, she took him down to the Catacombs, where a hidden slot for a swipe card opened the rock face as a door. The Order was three levels deep, winding, and teeming with smiling young-looking girls, who touched each other (and him) gently as they passed. They all looked very similar, and a bit like him. He noticed that there was an animal smell of some sort, and it was difficult to breathe. But, strangely, he felt like he belonged there. And he learned little about Rosa; everything she did had a purpose, and it seemed to be to get him to join the Order.
The next day Peter showed up in London, claiming cash-flow problems (due to frozen accounts). He told George that the group of nerds he was with, the Sten(t)ers had found out that there was dark matter in the sun (dark matter was thought to outnumber matter 10 to 1, at least at the time this book was writing), and some of it had been shot out of the sun directly at earth, and then changed directions radically inside the core, exiting at a completely different direction. He postulated that some kind of war was going on.
Daniel had found Peter somehow on email, and they met up with him and Lucia at the coliseum. Peter didn’t believe her story, either, but it did remind George that all the women he had seen in the Crypt were prepubescent except for Rosa. The three of them took her to an American hospital, since Pina had been in a general hospital for a broken leg but had been quickly checked out by another member of the Order. Peter noted that he pulse was intense, but slow (typical for high CO2 environments, which since CO2 is heavier than oxygen, would fit the Crypt), her skin pale (typical for dark places), and looked over the medical records of Pina that Daniel had hacked from the hospital. Pina had been found to be medically prepubescent. Peter thought that the Order’s physical bodies had adapted to the conditions of the Crypt over the 1600 years since its founding. And then they realized that Daniel wasn’t there, which was because the Order came and took Lucia, and he was being held down by guards.
Peter asked that George get him access to the Vatican Secret Archive through his Jesuit contact, which took a bit, but was eventually granted. “Secret” in this case, though, simply meant “not public.” Still, Peter found a lot of information on the Order. Pushed by Peter, George asked Rosa to bring him to Lucia. Which she did. She took him down to the lowest level, the third level, and he could tell that the air had much more CO2 than at the higher levels. She led him by the household gods that Regina had faithfully taken from place to place, and had a reverent niche near the birthing room, where a bunch of women were having babies, some clearly very old and clearly very pregnant. Peter texted him to get out.
Peter had figured it out. The Order was an emergent being, like an ant colony. In an ant colony, most of the workers are sterile, and only the queen breeds. No one organizes the colony, not even the queen. The organization is an emergent property from each worker knowing only the local situation (“ignorance is strength”), and communicating with one another (“listen to your sisters”). Genetically, you pass more of your genes on if you have lots of nieces than a few daughters, so you help the Mother produce more sisters (“sisters are more important than daughters”). Ants communicate by pheromones, which accounted for the earthy, animal smell he sensed, as well as by touch. Then he got a loud message on his cell phone, abruptly gathered his laptop and other equipment, and left.
Rosa called George because Peter was stuck in a cleft in one of the ventilation shafts threatening to blow the place up. So George went down and talked to Peter. Peter said that he was on the run because he had bombed Fermilab, because they had figured out how to slow light down enough to make a black hole, which would warp space-time. But high-technology aliens would need to use space-time technology to travel. Since the universe was quiet, apparently it was not safe to broadcast your existence, and making a black hole would be doing that in the clearest way. As for the Order, it was a hive, and would take over the earth. It would be the end of independent humans, because most of the planet lives in close conditions and limited resources, which is where hives, the Coalescents, thrive. Negotiations failed, Peter blew himself up, causing a sinkhole that exposed the tunnels of the Order, revealing the Order to the public for the first time in 1600 years. Later, as George thought about it, he was sure that Peter was part of a different Coalescent, only a nerdy kind; ants fight a new colony they encounter, which was what Peter was doing. In fact, George himself may have been co-opted into working as a pawn of the Order. At any rate, the masses of drone girls that swarmed above-ground after the explosion disappeared, and by the time the authorities could examine the tunnels, everything had been removed.
40,000 years in the future, humanity has spread to the stars and is engaged in a great war at the galactic core. They need bodies, so they found a coalescent planet, invaded one of the hundreds of hives, and captured workers to send to the front. It seemed like humanity had preserved itself from coalescing, although it seemed a little ambiguous.
Coalescent ends with a bang, mostly resolving the mysteries of the book and moving from interleaved historical fiction and modern angst to hard sci-fi. It takes what seems to be a clandestine, controlling Catholic organization and suddenly flips that into the natural behavior behavior of a hive of humans. Baxter presents a believable picture of how a desire to stem the tide of failing civilization and protect her family could cause Regina to unintentionally create a hive.
I did not enjoy this book. Nobody is happy in the book, except for the drone girls, and most of the people in the story are really controlling. Regina is the ultimate heartless, calculating, controlling mom, ostensibly doing things for the good of the family, but really only trying to preserve her way of civilized life. Not only does the reader need to endure a rape scene (does it really add anything to describe it in detail, or could we just understand that it happened?), but then the Regina goes on to destroy two her daughter’s first two relationships, sell her as a prostitute to achieve her goal of find her mother in Rome, guilt-trips Brica’s brand new husband to endure the Vandal invasion rather than shelter him with the others, requires her daughter to continue making babies and refuses to let her granddaughter have kids. Then Rosa connives Lucia into becoming a baby-machine against Lucia’s desires. She also interacts calculatingly with George, being warm and affectionate or cold depending on the situation. The Order is technically a biological family, but it is a highly dysfunctional one. For one thing, there is no intimacy in this family, just superficial connection; no one ever becomes vulnerable except Lucia, and it cost her. The Order is not a family in the human sense, which exists for the next generation. Rather, the Order is a factory, where people serve the organization.
From a literary standpoint, I really dislike jerking the reader around by switching context every chapter. It has the advantage that it enables the back story to serve as a means of advancing the mystery, but it prevents the reader from ever settling in to the book. Every chapter you get jerked back to a completely different context, and it’s tiring. Also, the science fiction element came very late in the book. For the most part, it was a mediocre historical fiction novel about Regina and a very mediocre search-for-long-lost-family-member novel. The last hundred pages completely upends the context from the rest of the book, transforming it from simply someone trying to come to terms with the fact that the high civilization they had known was inevitably coming to an end and that the future would not be better than the past, into the formation of a new kind of existence. The transformation was brilliant, but I read the book expecting a science-fiction book, and I would have liked the science-fiction part spread out throughout the book.
It is a thought-provoking book, however. To what extent are we a human hive already, simply drones working for an organization, all the while thinking we have free will? Baxter also does a good job of painting a picture of how people deal with civilization falling apart, and the pain and angst involved as it happens around you. So far, all civilizations have failed; how long will our Western civilization, or even the great American experiment, last, and what will happen if/when it does fail?