by Stephen Baxter

Harper Voyager


520pp/17.99/August 1999


Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In his newest novel Stephen Baxter tackles Time itself, giving the reader a view of the galaxy billions of years into the future. The action opens in 2011, when Reid Malenfant is making plans to travel into space to mine an asteroid. Although Malenfant failed as an astronaut, he has managed to succeed spectacularly as a businessman, guided by his ex-wife, Emma Stoney.

Early in the novel, Malenfant fails under the spell of a Rasputinesque figure, Cornelius Taine, a mathematician who seems to believe that the human race will end within two centuries. His avowed goal is to prevent that end and he needs Malenfant’s company and skills to succeed. Baxter never really explores Taine’s background, but the knowledge the man has indicates that there is much more to him than Baxter is willing to reveal to either Malenfant or the readers. Eventually, Taine is able to exert undue control over Malenfant and his business dealings.

Although the characters interact with each other, they rarely have relationships. Malenfant remains distant and calculating from everyone, including Emma. Baxter fails to portray Taine in enough detail for him to escape from the mysterious Rasputin-figure he is at the beginning of the novel. Although Baxter shows Emma caring for and taking care of Malenfant, the reader is not shown enough of their relationship to understand why she feels anything for this man who scorns her opinion and mistreats her at every opportunity. The only character who seems to have a realistic relationship is Bill Tybee, a regular man whose son is among a group of super-intelligent children called the Blues. Even as world opinion attempts to take his son away from him, Tybee does everything in his power to remain close to his child.

Baxter is playing with many ideas in Time, ranging from super-intelligent children to a little known asteroid named Cruithne with an odd orbital resonance with the Earth. He manages to weave these and other elements, with various success into his story of exploration and discovery as first a breed of sentient squids and later humans manage to set foot of Cruithne.

Time is a cross between Baxter’s recent NASA-based novels, such as Voyage, Titan and Moonseed and his earlier Xeelee stories which played with massive physics questions. While fans of his more recent novels will enjoy the first half of the book, the second half will appeal more to those who liked Ring, Raft and Timelike Infinity. On their journey through space and time, Malenfant, Emma and Taine travel through a portal, reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s monolith from 2001 and witness the birth and deaths of universes. Baxter even includes a scene in which Malenfant finds himself in a virtual hotel room, much as David Bowman did after entering the monolith in 2001. However, Baxter’s novel does not contain the emotional and mystical elements which made 2001 such a strong book. Baxter focuses on the scientific explanations, stringing together his ideas without completing the links in a way to make them

In Time, Baxter presents arguments for a complete overhaul of existing space law and treaties.  Explaining that current laws are based on an outdated rivalry between the United States and the no-longer-existant Soviety Union, they need to be replaced by a non-nation-based, corporation-friendly set of laws in order to open economic development in space.

One of the problems Baxter has demonstrated in some of his recent books, such as Titan, is a failure to accurately reflect US culture.   This appears in small ways again in Time.  He uses some British usages when depicting the thoughts and words of Americans, for instance "she took the I-15, the main route. . . " or referring to a Congresswoman as "Representative."  Neither technically wrong, however, colloquial American-English usage is different.  These are minor problems, but they have a tendency to break up the narrative.

For all the eschatological nature of the novel, repeated predictions of the end of humanity or its replacement by a new race of genius children, Time is less pessimistic than Baxter’s recent novels such as Titan or Moonseed.   Time is a big book with a lot of discussion of cutting edge scientific theories which ultimately fails due to a lack of emotional resonance with the reader.

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