Fiction Reviews


Firstborn: The Conclusion of A Time Odyssey

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

 

This is the third part of the Baxter-Clarke 'Time Odyssey' series. It is billed as 'the conclusion' which would make the series a trilogy but as the previous book had been referred to as the second in a duology, I would not hold your breath. (More of this later.) What you need to know for now is that it follows on from Time’s Eye and Sunstorm - A Time Odyssey: Book 2 (check the afore links for the back story).

In Firstborn the Earth has survived the sunstorm induced by the ancient hyper intelligence known as the 'Firstborn'. However on the edge of the Solar System there is an incoming object on collision course with Earth and it is artificial. It looks like the 'Firstborn' are serious about wiping out mankind. Meanwhile on MIR (the artificial Earth with time sliced copies of the surface from segments of its history) communication with the real Earth 21st century has been established via Biesa's mobile phone and one of the Firstborn 'eyes'... Can everyone stop the Firstborn weapon approaching Earth?

This is a an ending (if it is the ending?) to the 'Time Odyssey' sequence. As with the previous in the series, this is not a great work and certainly does not show either of the collaborators at their very best. The Firstborn's motivations and actions do not entirely chime and as such this work is decidedly flawed. (For example, the Firstborn seem to be able to manipulate space and time on one hand yet are reduced to sending a weapon to wipe out humankind through normal space on the other.) Yet again, as with the previous, this is a solid tale that features themes that both authors have separately explored elsewhere (and addressed far better elsewhere): Clarke has previously dealt with the possibility of aliens affecting humanity's evolution, Baxter has looked at parallel universes, while both have looked at human evolution with a deep time perspective. This thematic exploration therefore lends the series some importance in terms of the genre at large as well as the authors respected oevres. If you like, it is a landmark work within the SF landscape that is not so much of value as a landmark in itself, rather that it is a pointer relating to some of both the authors other (more major) genre contributions.

My guess - and I am guessing - is that Clarke had unfinished business and so used 'A Time Odyssey' to help get this done. Of course Clarke in recent year's had been getting on in age and in December 2007 turned 90 before, a few months later, dying. Consequently it is hard to imagine him being an equal collaborator in this book's authorial partnership, so one suspects that Stephen Baxter did much of the writing based on notes Clarke provided as well as his comments on the draft manuscript. Now I am not being derogatory, anyone at 90 cannot expect to have the energy of someone a few decades younger: I am simply pointing out a likelihood based on an obvious fact. What it does mean is that this book is not the product of two of the genre's stalwarts operating at their peak.

As for Clarke's unfinished business, I think the clue lies in 3001: The Final Odyssey which Clarke wrote when he was comparatively spritely at 79. In that book the Discovery's crew (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) are sort of re-united and have to face a threat from the super alien intelligence behind the iconic black monolith. Sound familiar? And more, this intelligence, is also called the 'Firstborn'. In 3001 Clarke refers to the Firstborn as not only helping (uplifting?) intelligence across the galaxy but also engaging in 'weeding'. In the Baxter-Clarke 'Time Odyssey' this weeding is undertaken with regards to humanity. Finally, in Firstborn, the introductory blurb clearly states that the Firstborn in both the 'Time Odyssey' and 'Space Odyssey' series are the same. Having said that there is no such connection made in the book's text and indeed the events of 2001: A Space Odyssey are not mentioned: if they had they would clearly be germane. Consequently we can only conclude from this omission that the 'Space' and 'Time' odyssey events are taking place in parallel universes.

So why have I gone to the trouble of mentioning such idle speculation with you? Well since the first two books were clearly not a duology, am I convinced that Firstborn really is 'the conclusion to 'A Time Odyssey'? Nope.   Given this could there be more?   Well given that the book ends with a short one-page chapter that presents matters on a new level one cannot but help speculate that there really is more to come. It may be that Arthur had time to jot down some notes and share these with Stephen? If so expect another book. Having said that, and if this really has happened, I really do urge Stephen to take his time. The three books in this series to date do appear to have been hurriedly written and do have some unsatisfactory inconsistencies that could (should) have been ironed out. Of course I can dream... Poole, Bowman and Hal meeting Reid Malenfant. Done right that would really be something.

Jonathan Cowie


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