The novel “Raft” by Stephen Baxter was published for the first time in 1991. It’s considered the first novel in the Xeelee Sequence.
Rees is a young miner whose job is to dig out the core of a dead star to extract its iron. He’s ignorant but that’s not his fault: it’s because miners receive no education and only learn the concepts associated with their job.
However, Rees isn’t stupid and observing the environment around him he understands that the nebula in which he lives is dying. To find someone who can do something he hides in a flying tree during a flight that eventually takes him to the presence of a scientist. His argument is heard but besides the problem of the nebula the society of humans who live there is also in trouble because it’s close to collapse.
In 1989, Stephen Baxter wrote a short story called “Raft” then he expanded its concepts and in 1991 he published his first novel, which has the same title. It’s indicated as the first novel in the Xeelee Sequence but actually it’s connected to it only indirectly and can be read separately from the later novels. The Xeelee Sequence is part of a larger future history written over the years by Baxter which includes “Raft” and the inclusion of the many stories in different sub-cycles is sometimes arbitrary.
In “Raft” you see Stephen Baxter’s style as one of the most important writers currently active in the hard science fiction genre. This novel is in fact set in another universe where gravity is much stronger than our universe and the scientific component is important.
Another element typical of Stephen Baxter’s stories found in “Raft” is the presence of exotic life forms. According to the author, wherever there’s enough energy, some kind of life forms can emerge and the universe in which this novel is set is full of life forms adapted to the existing environments.
A manned spaceship came into that universe but its strong gravity caused it to start collapsing. The survivors were able to settle down in a nebula recycling parts of the spaceship to build a habitat, the raft of the title. In the course of several generations, the small society that was created got stratified in a quite rigid class system. Because of their limited resources and the decay of the knowledge brought from the universe of origin, after generations it gets close to collapse.
“Raft” is basically a juvenile as Rees, the protagonist, is a boy and the novel follows his coming of age. Starting from his origins as a miner, Rees starts a sort of quest that leads him to come in contact with the various social classes created in the course of generations in the nebula in which humans live. During his travels within the nebula, Rees also discovers strange physical phenomena and extraordinary indigenous life forms.
The structure of the novel in some ways resembles some fantasy novels set in a feudal society with the difference that in the universe it’s set in there’s no magic but a force of gravity much more intense than in our universe.
In this sort of quest that leads Rees to discover the secrets of the nebula, at several key moments the protagonists saves himself or understand something important due to a coincidence. Again there’s a similarity with fantasy stories but in them a character generally follows his destiny while in the case of “Raft” the protagonist is just in the right place at the right time. Coincidence is a narrative device often used in fiction but in this novel its repeated use seems a bit forced.
Also with regard to the characters, “Raft” has some problems because Rees is the only one really developed. The novel suffers from the fact that there are many characters but most of them appear only in a small part of it so their development is impossible.
Despite these flaws, overall “Raft” is a pretty good novel that shows Stephen Baxter’s potential but it’s nothing extraordinary so I can really recommend it only to this author’s fans and hard science fiction fans.