Monday, 25 January 2010

Clarke and Baxter, Time’s Eye (2004)

[Note: what with a new term, and lots of assessed work coming in at once, I currently have more marking to do than God. This means there's no time to write any new reviews this week, so instead I'm reposting reviews that appeared a few years ago in venues, such as the much lamented alienonline, that mean they are no longer available. Your out-of-date reviewerage starts here.]

How do you like your Yarn, sir? madam? Ripping, is it?

And how about your Adventure, madam? sir? How do you like that? High is it? Well step this way, because I’ve just the thing for you: it’s called Time’s Eye, and it’s another collaboration by those two world-figures of SF, Clarke and Baxter. What’s that? You want to know how High the Adventure gets?

It reaches as High as a timequake-world in which the surface of our planet, acting under the influence of a large number of mysterious floating globes, tessellates into a mishmash of historical periods. Early hominids bump into twenty-first century UN peacekeepers, nineteenth-century British imperial officers join the army of Alexander the Great, that sort of thing. Feisty and likeable heroes and heroines, and one excellently hiss-worthy female villain, trek across the changed face of the world, trying to plumb the mystery of what has happened. Rudyard Kipling, Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan all come within spear-chucking distance of one another in a spectacular battle between armies from different time zones at the site of Ancient Babylon, now half-destroyed by the appearance of a mysterious and possibly alien artefact. This is a novel in which characters turn to one another and say things like ‘I suppose all this footslogging seems primitive to you, with your flying machines and thinking boxes, the marvellous war-making devilry of futurity!’ Is that High enough for you?

If you’re looking for a read that rattles along, a book that entertains thoroughly, with well-differentiated characters you come to like caught up in world changing events in the grand old manner, all of it laced with cosmic speculation about the role of time and the possibility that humanity’s future won’t extend much beyond the present century, then this is the book for you.

There’s something very does-what-it-says-on-the-tin about Time’s Eye. It takes its world-shaking premise and its various characters and puts them through exciting and often illuminating adventures, keeping the reader hooked and leaving him or her wanting more. The notion of time warping such that people from different histories interact is hardly a new one in SF, after all: the premise of Time’s Eye recalls such sf warhorses as Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time (1938), Murray Leinster’s ‘Sidewise in Time’ (1934) or Fred Hoyle’s October the First is Too Late (1964), not to mention Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound (1973). But Clarke and Baxter put their adventure together so well, so entertainingly, that it never feels derivative – except, of course, in one particular.

Because, as an authors’ note at the beginning makes plain, this novel is a riff, or remix, of Clarke’s classic 2001 A Space Odyssey and its various diminishing-return sequels. To be precise, the reader is told that this book ‘neither follows nor precedes the books of the earlier Odyssey’, not prequel or sequel but ‘orthoquel’, a word which apparently means a book ‘taking similar premises in a different direction’. I do hope that so uneuphonious a coinage doesn’t catch on; it’s almost as bad as ‘quadrilogy’. But the idea behind it is a nice one.

There are some sunspots in this generally excellent read. Because it presents itself as sophisticated melodrama rather than psychological realism, we are carried along the improbable plot line without the friction of disbelief. But it perhaps strains credulity a little too far even for Good Honest Pulp SF that, of the twenty-first century characters, the half that falls in with Ghengis Khan just happens to include a man who speaks medieval Mongolian, and the half that falls in with Alexander the Great just happens to include a man who speaks Classical Greek, thereby facilitating the smooth integration of the disparate historical groups. (There are a couple of miniature errors in the Greek as well; the Macedonian soldiers chant ‘Al-e-hand-dreh! Al-e-hand-dreh!’: shouldn’t that be ‘Al-e-hand-ros!’ But I don’t mean to be pedantic.)

A more important concern is whether the mysterious impermeable floating globes that give the novel its title work as well as the mysterious impermeable black monoliths of the original 2001. They are certainly intriguingly rendered; although I can’t get my head around the idea, adduced several times in the book as evidence of their other-dimensionality, that the ration between their diameters and the circumference of their central circles is not pi but exactly 3.0. Can that be, even in other dimensions? If we swallow that, wouldn’t it also mean that ‘in another dimensions’ two plus two might equal six thousand and seventy, or that a triangle might have four sides? (But wouldn’t that make it a square?). Isn’t circumference equals pi times diameter just the way things are for circles and spheres? But it would ill behove me to disagree with such eminent scientists and SF writers as Clarke and Baxter.

More to the point, I wonder whether the globes work as well as the monoliths simply on a level of the frisson sent along readers spines. They are, perhaps, more logical (as in Banks’s Excession, a shaft dropped through four dimensions would appear as a sphere in three, just as a sphere intersecting a 2-D world would appear as a circle to the flatland inhabitants of that plane). But they lack the tombstone chilly rightness of Clarke-Kubrick’s original monoliths. Still: good stuff.


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Femalethoth (Mal from xkcdsucks) said...

With regards to pi being exactly three: It's actually not as far-fetched as 2 + 2 = 5 and a four-sided triangle. It has to do with the fact that pi's definition is rooted in distances, and distances are DEFINITELY something that can be changed.

Here's a way of thinking about it. A circle is the set of all points equidistant from a center, yes? And pi is the ratio of the distance around the circle to the radius of that circle.

Consider a line of latitude, on a globe, measured as the crow flies not as the mole burrows. A line of latitude is therefore a circle, with its center at a pole. However, if you measure the radius (the distance along the sphere from the pole to the line of latitude) and the circumference and try to calculate pi there, you won't get 3.141etc. In the extreme case of, say, the equator, you get a pi of 4.

It all comes down to what metric the space you're in has, to use some topological terms. The study of non-Euclidean metrics is a very rich field, as is the study of spaces that cannot possibly have metrics.

It's not just mathematical abstraction, though. General relativity tells us that our space, our physical universe, does not have a perfectly Euclidean metric. Distance itself gets distorted by gravity, so that near massive objects the shortest distance between two points is not what we conventionally imagine to be a straight line.

I'm not sure it would be possible to have a metric where pi is three when measured both by C = 2 Pi R and V = 4/3 Pi R³, but it's certainly conceivable. The fact that it's exactly three, for a variety of sizes of spheres, is the mark of engineered space.

But, as you say, they may still not have the ominous narrative power of those monoliths.

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