Time by Stephen Baxter (HarperCollins Voyager, £17.99, 456 pages, hardback; published 2 August 1999.)
I wouldn't go as far as they do on the cover - "The millennium's last great SF novel" - but Stephen Baxter's Time is certainly a good one, albeit with slightly disturbing undercurrents. And squids, and super-bright children, and time travel.
The novel opens in 2010 with a sales pitch from Reid Malenfant, failed astronaut and founder of the company Bootstrap: colonising the entire galaxy is easy, a question of simple economics - it's near as dammit free. The alternative is Malthusian extinction. It's a grand, Nivenesque vision of private enterprise leading the way back into space, but Baxter is a more complex and interesting author: it's not long before events subvert that gung-ho vision of the future.
Malenfant's company has been planning a clandestine return to space, so clandestine that Emma Stoney, Malenfant's ex-wife and the company's financial controller, doesn't even know about it. But when Cornelius Taine, an eccentric mathematician with fascistic tendencies, turns up in her office one day everything changes: he knows what Malenfant is up to, but that's not all he knows. He also knows that the world is due to end in 200 years.
The characters in Time are rich and interesting, but there is a certain sameness of purpose that undermines them: Malenfant is the one with the vision, the charisma, and he has no trouble convincing others that he is right - or at least doing the Right Thing. Maura Della, an early political opponent, is easily won over to the cause; Cornelius Taine somehow manages to combine arrogant self-belief with an unquestioning belief that Malenfant will be the saviour of humankind; Emma Stoney, cheated on and abandoned by Malenfant, stays with him to dig him out of scrapes and generally guide his successful career.
Malenfant will do whatever is required to get his own way - it's very much a case of ends justifying means. Taine happily encourages this; Maura Della acts similarly, albeit reluctantly at times; even Emma Stoney goes along with it all, despite her conscience.
It makes for uneasy reading: a smoothly executed story loaded so that the reader has to accept the various unpleasant solutions along the way. There are certainly some tough decisions ahead of us, and we're sure to get it wrong a lot of the time, but it's hard to go along with someone as monomaniac and egotistical as Reid Malenfant. It's a bit like the maverick policeman cliché in crime fiction: in real life such cops should, and hopefully would, be drummed out of the force but in fiction it's okay, we know he's going to be right and the goal justifies the somewhat dubious methods. In Time Malenfant is right, of course, but in reality to go along with someone like him would be a long shot, to say the least.
Time is a book crammed with ideas, essential for the hard sf reader, complete enough as a novel to satisfy those beyond the subgenre. Towards the end it falters a little, it stops being the story of the people and becomes the story of the ideas - a big, wild tumble of speculative physics. Impressive, but a bit of a let down all the same.
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© Keith Brooke 28 September 1999