Fiction Reviews

Sunstorm - A Time Odyssey: Book Two

(2005) Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter, Gollancz,6.99, pbk, 332 pp, ISBN 0-575-07801-4


This is the paperback release of last year's hardback, which itself is the second, final, book in the 'Time Odyssey' duology. Book one saw Biessa Dutt, with the military in Afghanistan, and her crashed helicopter whisked to another Earth whose surface was a patchwork of Earths from throughout human history. - First Book Spoiler Alert to the end of this paragraph. - At the end of that book the' first borne' had transported Biessa through space and time to 2073...

Biesa is at home in London and witnesses a solar storm of such magnitude that it badly affects electronics globally. Yet this sun storm is just the first symptom of a major solar eruption of such severity that it threatens to sterilise the Earth. Humanity has to employ its technology (which includes a couple of artificial intelligences and a space programme) to somehow protect the Earth and it is a race against time. Along the way it is discovered that this threat is actually the result of a deliberate act...

It is fair to say that for the greatest enjoyment you do need to read book one first (and it - Time's Eye - is also now available in paperback). Having said that if you really want to you can skip book one as the salient linking points are covered in this Sunstorm sequel though it may take the reader a little time to make sense of them all. Either way the book is a solid SF adventure thriller.

Generally Clarke is not at his best with collaborators: indeed some of these such as some of the later Rama series are rather forgettable. Furthermore Clarke, as we all get with the passing years, is past his best. All of this then make Sunstorm a bit of a delight. The book scores on a number of points. First, Baxter writes respectable hard SF of his own. Second, Baxter's style and type of hard SF is not a million miles from that of Clarke's even though they are a generation apart. (And Baxter has previously been described by other reviewers as Clarke's heir.) Third these two 'Time Odyssey' books do draw upon elements that permeate both authors' works. All these serve to enhance the reader's enjoyment of Sunstorm.

Seasoned readers will recognise the interplanetary space travel elements from both authors' works. Clarke does his usual thing of naming some of the characters after leading scientists and other specialist luminaries (such as Alveraz after the father and son part of the team that came up with the iridium evidence that suggested that the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid). Clarke's exploration of intelligent computers and artificial sentience also resonates. Meanwhile Baxter's deep-time concerns are included. So there is much with which readers of both authors' works can chime (and I suspect that both these groupings have a sizeable overlap). The other plus point is that the science on the whole is good. Having said that, there is one howler (stemming from imprecise writing). Referring to the peaking of the solar spectrum on page 100 of this edition:
'As the spectrum normally does,' Mikhail said. 'In green light, as it happens, Which is where our eyes are most sensitive and where chlorophyll works best - which is why, no doubt, chlorophyll was selected by evolution to serve as the photosynthetic chemical that fuels all aerobic plant life.'
Now actually green plants' chlorophyll (there are other types) do not use green light. In fact such chlorophyll does not even absorb green light but reflects it... which is why, er..., plants appear green... (Not withstanding the paragraph in question also includes a teleological comment suggesting that evolution actively selects something. Evolution in the Darwinian sense is the process of (gene) selection ('survival of the fittest' if you will) and not the 'selection' itself. However it is an error I can understand and it often crops up in public understanding of science texts for various reasons of which I wont bore you here.) But this slip is really the only major one.

Elsewhere good research does shine through. The Royal Society (which I know well from many events (some of which I have even organised)) is described accurately (though a Fellow giving a talk would almost certainly do the audiovisual preparation in the Fellow's lounge and not the City of London rooms). London itself is also depicted realistically, but then both the authors know this city even if Clarke has been absent from it apart from a couple of visits in recent decades. All this background eases SF readers' suspension of belief.

Lightweight, perhaps.   A fairly easy read, certainly.   An enjoyable tale, definitely.   And something of which the early 21st century Clarke might be proud, unquestionably. Though Sunstorm may not be among the top ten SF novels of the year, it is certainly a sound read, and given both the authors' fine pedigree it really deserves space on the shelves of all who consider themselves respectable SF readers. Let's hope these two get together again soon before Clarke stops writing. More baton-passing between these two authors please.

Jonathan Cowie

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