Fiction Review


Firstborn

(2008) Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, 16.99, hrdbk, 290pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08340-0

 

This is the third and final installment of 'A Time Odyssey'. Bisesa Dutt, the UN Special Envoy who was caught in the Discontinuity (which took time 'slices' from various periods of Earth's history and reassembled them as the planet now known as Mir in its own pocket universe) and then returned to her own Earth to deal with the Sunstorm (during which the Firstborn threw a Jovian world into the sun), went into hibernation eight years later, only to be woken up in 2069. Her daughter, Myra, helps her get to Mars where one of the Firstborn's 'Eyes' (aspects of a multi-dimensional tool) sends her back to Mir. She is chased all the way by agents of the Space Council, now headed by Bella Fingal, as they have discovered a new threat from the Firstborn. They have launched a Q-bomb at the Earth; 'Q' in this case standing not for quantum, but quintessence, the negative energy which causes the universe to expand. Earth and everything and everyone on it will be torn apart by expanding spacetime. Bella's daughter, Edna, is piloting Earth's first anti-matter powered spaceship, the Liberator, in an attempt to destroy the Q-bomb before it reaches Earth, but all attempts fail. Can Bisesa find a solution in the Mir universe, and will it be found in time to save the Earth?

It is a shame that poor old Arthur has finally died. With Asimov, Heinlein and now Clarke dead, science fiction has lost all three of its modern 'fathers'. This was the second last book he co-authored. Like many a fan, of a certain age, I grew up reading Clarke and, like many more, I have been reading Baxter since the beginning of his career. Between them, Clarke and Baxter take up a serious amount of shelf space in my study, and my respect and admiration for both is extremely high. Which is why I cannot understand how they have managed to produce such a disappointing trilogy/story. I must be missing something, I guess... I mean, here are the Firstborn, a super-advanced species who, apparently for reasons of energy conservation, decide to wipe out any potential future competition for resources. They can carve up spacetime, create pocket universes and have mastered negative energy. But somehow they cannot wipe out a human race that barely counts as a Type 1 Civilisation! Er, if they can transport a Jovian world across interstellar distances and chuck it into the Sun, why could not they save time and effort and just, say, pick up Mars and chuck it at the Earth? (Ed: Or pick up the Earth and chuck it anywhere?) After all, if they are that worried about energy conservation, surely it makes more sense to move a smaller world across interplanetary distances than it does to move a Jovian across interstellar distances? But the bumbling ineptitude of the Firstborn goes further, we discover when, during the course of this book, the characters find that interstellar space is full of 'refugees' from incompletely destroyed civilisations. Not that that is necessarily the weakest part of the plot, considered alongside the idea that the Eye seems unusually co-operative with Bisesa Dutt, conveniently transporting her where and when she needs to be without so much as an 'override' mechanism, or the fact that at least two last members of separately destroyed species just happen to stick around long enough to help out Earth's AI's, in the first case, and help with the Q-bomb threat, in the second. And, by the end of the book, we discover that nothing has been resolved (hardly surprising when there has been no direct contact with the Firstborn), and the war against the Firstborn is still going on. You would think life would be tough for poor old humans, having to face an extinction level event every twenty years or so, but perhaps it will be OK, given that the Firstborn seem so completely useless!

Collectively the 'Time Odyssey' books can be enjoyed as a rip-roaring read, a space adventure along the lines of Golden Age SF, but don't go looking for anything more substantial, because it just doesn't make sense. A sadly disappointing penultimate offering to such an influential career.

Tony Chester

See also Jonathan's review of Firstborn by Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter.


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