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Time's Eye: A Time Odyssey, book one
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Steve Sneyd

This novel draws on the familiar SF trope of abrupt juxtaposition of different time eras. In this case it's apparently the work of whatever force, entity, or race of beings that has also scattered about the suddenly adjacent chunks of past-to-future Earth, right from the time of dawn-age hominids, to 2037 at least, indestructible mid-air floating spy eye devices.

Because the scrunched together, as it were crunched-up then spat-out almost randomly - albeit still of least approximately in their original geographic positions - chunks from across time are also in different seasons, they distort weather and ecology in the long process of hunting a new equilibrium.

The people, too, have to interact, well or badly, peacefully or violently, cooperatively or competitively, with others from immensely different times, technological levels, and belief systems relating them to their original world and having to be somehow adapted to the new circumstances.

Nothing very new there, then... Nor, really, is the fact that, conveniently for the writers, the spy-eye entities have, in the process, brought into possibility of convergence into clashing rivalry two of the greatest conquerors in human history, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, since such cross-time conjunction books almost inevitably do involve famous names, ones readers can recognise: and better still if they can be set at each others' throats, with the fun, for the reader, of trying to guess ahead of time who will win, a parallel of sorts with the Japanese B-movie subgenre that began by setting King Kong and Godzilla into combat and eventually encompassed just about every monster pairing rivalry you could shake a stick at. (The authors do, to be fair, hint at an explanation of Alexander and Genghis being brought into synchronicity, i.e. in the text characters speculate that perhaps the spy-eyesters were 'themselves' also curious as to what would happen in such a battle.)

The book is lively and readable, with always plenty happening, and then some, as to-and-froings take place across half of time-scrambled Asia and more, and has a strong central character-come-heroine, Pisesa Dutt. She's an expert observer aboard a hi-tech, heavily armed, UN observation helicopter monitoring a fragile peace in a still unstable Afghanistan in 2037 (a believable touch, given the present indications of the likelihood of yet more decades of conflict to come there). Thrown with her crewmates into a world of nightmare by the discontinuity event, she remains toughly professional.

However, unlike The New York Times' reviewer, quoted in the cover blurb, who said "I can't imagine anyone finishing this book and not wondering what comes next," I found myself at the end neither particularly wondering nor particularly caring, and indeed was left rather with the feeling that here were two giants of the field going through old familiar motions, skilfully but without any real commitment to a story idea that demanded to be told. At the very least, they would seem to have very much been holding their intellectual fire for later instalments, a high-risk strategy, since if the reader cannot be challenged enough to invest mentally in the start of a series, why trouble to seek out follow-ups?

I also found it hard to suspend disbelief - not so much in the situation itself, as presented, but, even given human adaptability, and the backgrounds - professional as with the astronauts and soldiers involved, or ideological in terms of beliefs as to relationship with nature, as with those believing in the vast capriciousness of god, or gods, and hence unsurprised by the, in effect, rebirth of chaos - of the dramatis personae, in the speedy, matter of fact, adaptability shown. Those from the past took new technology on board speedily, rather than initially fleeing it or destroying it as demonic, those from nearer our time came to terms with the cultural strangenesses of the past as to the manner born, even to relatively easily bridging linguistic barriers to a degree that enabled real meetings of minds when it came to shared activities and projects, and so on.

It is difficult to start giving detailed instances without acting the plot spoiler, so I will leave that statement as bare assertion, backed by just one instance - the calmness, absence of affect to use the psychological term, with which Alexander reacts to returning to the locations of the cities he had founded during his conquests, and finding there, not places fallen into ruin, but barren wastelands clearly never ever touched by man, as if all his works had never existed, let alone been in vain.

I also found hard to swallow that, given the spatchcocking together of so many time zones, new diseases should not be far more rampant among humans having such different immunities or lacks of them. I do not, incidentally, jib at the lack of explanation found for the spy eyes, both the small isolated ones which the humans soon come to ignore after vain attempts to penetrate them, and even childish games intended to provoke them into activity rather than apparent stasis, and the suspected master or central one or ones, that great lure of so much of many characters' ceaseless questing motion - the authors, after all, need to keep their macguffin going for later volumes in the series. I did, however - again, I must be careful not to become a spoiler - find unconvincing, because arising, as it were, out of thin air, and also because emotion-fuelled in a character previously presented as ice-cold, the apparent relationship, even manipulative capability, achieved in one case with said macguffin, near the book's end.

It would be wrong to end this review wholly on a note of such negativity, however. As said, the book is 'a good read', with lively set pieces and plenty of adventure, and I also enjoyed what in effect was its one running gag: among the time-chunks thrown into the discontinuity mix was a northwest frontier British fort with a young Rudyard Kipling, still just a Lahore newspaper reporter, in situ to report an earlier conflict with the Afghans. Those from 2037 having let slip hints of his future fame, he persists, without success, in trying to drag out of them details of his future life back in the original timeline, and in particular, what has caused his fame to persist so long. Trying to evade his questioning gives pleasant light relief at many a grim point of a story never reluctant to ruthlessly despatch established characters.

Moreover, regardless of what be thought of how the situation created in Time's Eye is then handled by the authorial collaborators, its exposition does initially, as the characters gradually discover what the discontinuity has wrought in disrupting the lives of many world-times, make for a genuinely mind-stretching enlightenment as to the really terrifying possibilities of that scenario of time-mingling. In doing so, they make it possible to at least glimpse much deeper possibilities in a trope which, all too often, previous writers mainly used merely to set up colourfully unexpected cross-time 'odd couples' incongruously brought together to have swashbuckling adventures. To that extent at least, Time's Eye is a real re-minting and a truly valuable addition to science fiction's range of possibility.
Time's Eye by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

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