By Alexander Wallace
When I was reading many of the spinoffs of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, no work impressed me more than Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind. Later, I read his authorized sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine, entitled The Time Ships, and was likewise blown away. Despite my intentions, it took me far too long to read more of Baxter’s work. Here, we shall discuss another alternate history work of his: Anti-Ice.
Anti-Ice is a substance found in large quantities in Antarctica by British explorers in the mid-nineteenth century, heavily implied to be a form of antimatter. As such, the uses of this substance are various and oftentimes explosive. Anti-Ice the novel focuses on how the discovery and exploitation of this substance affects the Europe of the nineteenth century, particularly the 1870s; the coming Franco-Prussian War looms in the background.
The book begins with a narrative of the use of Anti-Ice in the Crimean War; those who like military alternate history will love the opening. There, you see firsthand the horror of this substance in war; you realize that this is essentially nuclear weapons about a century ahead of schedule.
The plot really kicks off at a World’s Fair; your narrator is a young man, a British diplomat assigned to accompany the Prussian delegation. This plot culminates with the narrator, a newspaperman, and the pioneer of Anti-Ice himself trapped aboard a vessel stranded in space. This is a premise that shows Baxter’s science fiction background (as opposed to the historical fiction background of certain other alternate history writers); the workings of all this fantastic technology are explained in lavish detail.
That detail will reward the science aficionado but will become plodding for other readers (like myself). Anti-Ice is a book that, for better or for worse, emulates the style of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne quite faithfully. At multiple moments, I was almost tricked into believing that this was actually a book from the period. That faithfulness leads to some spellbinding prose at times, but also a degree of occasional clumsiness that has mercifully gone out of style.
Baxter combines an old-school approach to the unknown with more modern dialogue (there are, thankfully, few long diatribes implausibly disguised as conversation) and description. In doing so, he brings a real sense of wonder to that which he describes. Yes, we enlightened twenty-first century dwellers know what the moon is really like, but the way that Baxter describes it will make you feel like you’re learning of it for the first time. It made the science fiction fan in me positively giddy.
Despite what the opening may imply, this is not a military science fiction novel. There are few combat scenes. However, those scenes are always impactful, with the full horror of war on display. This is something that Baxter has shown himself to be good at; both The Massacre of Mankind and The Time Ships had haunting scenes of battle, and Anti-Ice is no different.
The most glaring flaw is Baxter’s treatment of women; there is one female character whose only real role in the story is to motivate the male narrator (and in a way that isn’t particularly original, for this sort of story). It is by no means the worst portrayal of women in a novel like this, but it by no means the best either.
Anti-Ice has reaffirmed my faith in the abilities of Stephen Baxter. He has shown himself to be a writer capable of both great conceptual rigor and great depth of character. He is an author of a sort that our genre needs much more of, and I’m certain many in our community could learn from him.