Clarke's and Baxter's 'Time's Eye' -- leaping space

January 18, 2004|By Alan Cheuse | Alan Cheuse,Chicago Tribune

Time's Eye, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. Del Rey. 337 pages. $26.95 including CD-ROM.

Here's the publishing equivalent of a Spielberg movie opening -- not just a terrific new science-fiction novel by two of the greatest living practitioners of the genre (the reigning genius of the form and long-time resident of Sri Lanka, and a former British engineer turned award-winning novelist) but also an artifact of our times. Along with a novel about a major collision of time and space comes a CD-ROM that includes an interview with the two writers and Adobe eBook editions of Baxter's novels Manifold: Time and Evolution.

In a theater this would sell a lot of popcorn along with the tickets. So, I think, science-fiction fans couldn't be happier.

But what about the average interested reader? Does he or she want to spend the time with this story instead of the latest mystery or spy thriller? I would hope the answer is a resounding yes, because unlike the other varieties of genre books that merely give you a chance to rest your mind between bouts of serious reading, the Clarke-Baxter invention is speculative in the most entertaining fashion, a story that engrosses you with its dramatized ideas about the nature of existence even as it takes your mind off the workaday world.

In their authors' note, Clarke and Baxter announce that this book is the first in a series and refer to the story as an "orthoquel," not a sequel, to Clarke's famous Space Odyssey series. Orthoquel? A story that works, as they define it, "at right angles" to the Space Odyssey books, "taking similar premises in a different direction."

The major premise, that superhuman beings nearly as old as the universe are manipulating human experience, begins with a figure familiar to fans of 2001. We meet Seeker, an upright humanoid female from a million years ago who finds herself transported from her ancient habitat to the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's now the 19th century. British troops occupy the territory (and a few journalists on assignment cover their maneuvers, including the young Rudyard Kipling), all of them observed by a group of floating, eyelike orbs that hover just above them.

In chapters immediately following we observe the crew of an orbiting Soyuz space capsule and the helicopter crew of a United Nations peacekeeping force being thrust out of the year 2037 into the same 19th-century location -- if it really is the 19th century. What seems to have occurred is a vast wrenching of time and geography, a "Discontinuity," as some of the characters come to call it, with slices from various epochs carved out of their places in time and slapped together with other slices, so that the Earth becomes a patchwork, from core to thousands of miles above the surface, of periods and places.

The story vibrates not so much because of the scientific speculation as because of the wonderfully detailed depiction of its actual possibilities. The book builds toward the monumental clash between the armies of Genghis Khan and Alexander The Great. Heads fly. Ideas take flight. You won't set the book down to eat or sleep or work if you can help it.

And this is only Vol. 1.

Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for NPR's All Things Considered, a writing teacher at George Mason University and the author, most recently, of the short-story collection Lost and Old Rivers. This review was published, in longer form, in the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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