Firstborn by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
Book 3 of A Time Odyssey series
Published by Del Rey, December 2007
(ARC copy received for review)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
There can’t be many SF readers who are not aware of Sir Arthur Charles Clarke. From his connections with geosynchronous satellites and space elevators, to the book (and film) 2001: A Space Odyssey, he has been writing SF for nearly 70 years. And similarly, for those who are not aware, Stephen Baxter is the UK author widely regarded by many (including myself) as Sir Arthur’s natural successor. Combining hard science with a style reminiscent of Clarke’s, Stephen’s work has included themes as wide-ranging as alternate histories, far-future galactic events and evolution.
A partnership between the two then may be something to be excited about (though I was not impressed with their first collaboration, The Light of Other Days, in 2002.) Firstborn is the third book of a series, A Time Odyssey, begun by Sir Arthur and Stephen in 2003.
[WARNING: Plot synopses of the first two books in the series follow.]
The first book, Time’s Eye, told the story of the appearance of a series of enigmatic globes, mysteriously connected to dislocations in space and time. Consequently characters taken from Earth’s present and past were placed on a new world, called Mir, made up of sections of Earth from different times. These included Alexander the Great’s 4th century Macedonian army, Rudyard Kipling on the North West Frontier of the 1880’s and an Asia ruled by Genghis Khan and his Mongol army. The purpose of the globes and the reason for their actions were, like the omnipresent monolith before them, left fairly mysterious. However it was deduced that the globes were being managed by the Firstborn, an inexplicable alien race who had been manipulating Earth’s past and who forewarned of a future where Earth would no longer exist.
The second book, Sunstorm, published in 2005, begins with the return of one of Time’s Eye’s characters to 2037. Having spent five years on Mir, Bisesa Dutt suddenly returns to Earth at the time she originally left, for reasons undetermined. Here we find there is an apocalyptic problem to deal with. The Sun, due to interstellar meddling (having shot a Jupiter-sized planet into the sun thousands of years ago), is producing a solar radiation ‘sunstorm’ that threatens to clear all living species from the Earth’s surface. There is a survival plan organised and acted upon, and the final scenes lead to the Firstborn being revealed.
[END OF PLOT SYNOPSIS.]
And now this latest book continues the series. Fans up to this point then are clearly looking for some degree of resolution and closure. What is the Firstborn’s aim? Can Earth and the human race survive?
Bisesa Dutt returns, after being cryogenically frozen, to find the world different. Not only is her daughter now nearly as old as herself, but like post-9/11 (the similarity is clearly not by accident) a shocked world has been gearing up for a confrontation with the Firstborn.
Bisesa, along with her daughter Myra, travels from Earth to Mars and once more to the world of Mir. She is a key link between the events of the past and the future. The big secret (that the sunstorm was caused by the Firstborn, for reasons unknown), is now widely recognised.
And there is a need to be prepared for their next attempt, which occurs in this novel. For the Eyes have returned, as too the arrival of an alien something near Saturn. What the Firstborn have released is a quantum bomb: something unstoppable, unescapable and an event that will wipe out the human race on Earth.
So, like Sunstorm, we’re back into earth-apocalypse territory, in that cut-to-the-bone, sense-of-wonder style that is inimitable of Clarke.
What this book does is remodel and refine many of the earlier ideas of both Clarke and Baxter. Though not essential to the books enjoyment, a fan of their other work can find them: space elevators, solar wind sailing ships, mammoths and alien uplift.
The characters are still faintly predictable, the portrayal pretty limited, and yet, the collective whole still works. This book shows that, though old-fashioned in style, there is still something there that creates a sense of wonder, an enthusiasm to investigate, explore and solve puzzles, a positivism for the future, something found in both Baxter’s and Clarke’s work. At the end of the book the dramatic conclusion is both suitably impressive, answers some of the questions suggested above and yet still offers further questions as well as answers.
You know, there’s still something about an Arthur C Clarke novel, even when the actual amount of his input is not that clear. This is clearly due to the skill of Baxter as well as Clarke here. Whether it’s that bone-dry prose, pared to its essential, that quintessentially British humour (though I have yet to actually qualify what ‘that’ is) lurking behind the plot or just that distinct Clarkean way that these big ideas all hang together to a logical yet dramatic solution – there’s something that on reading an ACC book that makes me, like many other fans brought up on his fiction, sigh a collective Yes. And it is impressive how here Stephen Baxter has managed to incorporate the style and the ideas of Clarke into something contemporary and engaging.
Sir Arthur is 90 this year (in fact, 90 on the weekend of beginning this review.) I can think of no other fitting tribute to the man than by reading this series. Whatever the amount of actual physical input he has had in this book, it is clear that the intention and the spirit of this genre legend’s body of work continues here though Stephen Baxter into the 21st century. If you want to get a flavour of the man’s vision, the ideas and the science, this series is a pretty good start. A fitting summary of Sir Arthur’s work.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, December 2007
Copyright © sffworld.com. If quoted please credit "sffworld.com, name of reviewer".