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Firstborn by Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen BaxterUK edition2.5 stars

[This review contains some mild spoilers.]

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsI had been enjoying Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter’s A Time Odyssey trilogy up to now, despite of — and in a very real sense because of — its potboilerish qualities. And one has to give the series credit for its devil-may-care willingness to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. How many other SF sagas can you think of that incorporate end-of-the-world disaster scenarios, parallel and pocket universes, cosmology and the latest in ripped-from-the-journals quantum physics, alternate history, space battles, an inscrutable alien menace, and Alexander the Great? Given how over the top it already was from a conceptual standpoint, it’s probably not surprising the the final book in the trilogy disappoints in that it fails to tie all of these wildly disparate loose ends together in a satisfying way. 

Clarke’s own 2001 proved decades years ago that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with head-scratching, unresolved endings, as long as they provoke argument and discussion and speculation. Most of 2001’s trippy appeal is that it’s one of the rare movies people sit up till four in the morning arguing about. (Or at least did until the sequels started spelling things out for you.) But that’s the difference between what you might call a “Wow!” ending, and its polar opposite, the “WTF?” ending. One engages the imagination, the other just annoys.

Speaking of 2001: Apart from the obvious marketing motivations, I can’t quite grok the push to promote this trilogy as related to the 2001 series. Granted, that entire series is full to the brim with retconning, the practice of “retroactive continuity,” when an author deliberately alters or entirely ignores the continuity established in earlier volumes of a series simply because he wants to go a new direction with his latest story. Clarke has apparently indicated that each of the four 2001 novels takes place in its own universe independent of the others. So maybe, if you were really big into allowances, you could see this trilogy as set in yet another parallel universe where a similar rumble between humans and alien bullies was underway. Still, I smell the taint of naked commerce in the fact the silhouette of a Monolith appears on this book’s cover, where there isn’t one to be found anywhere inside.

What we get with Firstborn is quintessential post-9/11 paranoid space opera. Here, the whole damned universe is out to get us — particularly in the form of the titular aliens, whose origins are not merely obscure but opaque and whose motivations seem to be to stamp out any civilization before it gets too advanced for the universe’s good (shades of Jack McDevitt’s Omega Clouds). Not content with temporally shattering the Earth like a Christmas ornament in Time’s Eye, leaving a patchwork copy of our planet in its own pocket universe where people and lifeforms from hundreds of different time periods must coexist; not content with trying to barbecue us in the mother of all solar flares in Sunstorm; now the Firstborn are coming at us with their ultimate weapon, the Q-bomb, a massive Eye like the ones spying on us all through the trilogy. The Q-bomb destroys its target by enclosing it in a tiny unstable pocket universe that promptly rips itself into oblivion. Cripes! I know humanity isn’t always on its best behavior, but what have we done to deserve this? Can’t we just give the Firstborn Osama, Donald Trump and O.J. Simpson and ask them to leave the rest of us alone? 

At least we learn it isn’t just us. The Firstborn have it in for every life form they encounter, though once again, without even the tiniest hint into their nature, they come across mostly like aloof and angry gods whom you neither know how to placate nor resist. I gather that’s Clarke and Baxter’s point, enhancing the story’s dramatic tension by putting humanity up against the dread unknown. But while the Firstborn as beings remain unexplained, our heroes are able to winkle out their motives. That humanity is up against a cold and hostile universe, against which we must unite or perish, remains the trilogy’s overriding theme. 

It’s interesting to place a trilogy like A Time Odyssey within the context of Clarke’s earlier classic fiction. In books like Earthlight and The Sands of Mars, the universe was our oyster, full of promise for a boundless future. If only we’d set aside our stubborn and selfish political agendas and work together to conquer space, Clarke once told us, well then, space was there to be conquered. Matters changed in Childhood’s End, to which this series owes stronger thematic allegiance. And whether friendly, hostile, or inscrutable (as in both 2001 and Rama), the role of silent godlike aliens in humanity’s destiny has always been a major lietmotif of Clarke’s. In A Time Odyssey, the Firstborn, though initially mysterious, were always menacing, graduating to purely malicious in Sunstorm

But what happens in Firstborn is that the metareferences to Clarke’s SF legacy become too overt, calling attention to themselves in a way often disruptive to the story. As on the moon in  2001, there’s something buried under the surface of Mars that will influence events. Space elevators (The Fountains of Paradise) play a major role here, but as the concept is expanded upon with the latest technological information, it actually plays pretty well. Far more intrusive are the Sands of Mars references, which have a hand-waving “look! look!” character to them. The main colony on Mars here is also called Port Lowell, and in one scene, we even see Bisesa curling up with a copy of Martian Dust, the novel by Martin Gibson, Sands’ protagonist. As there is no reason given to think Firstborn is in any way set in the same future as Sands — nor is there any reason to think this is just more retconning, simply a reference for its own sake — little moments like this are a narrative distraction, taking you out of the story for a bit of nudge-wink fan service and authorial self-indulgence.

Still, I was all prepared to forgive the book any number of little infelicities if only the authors hadn’t undermined what would have been a profound and emotionally stirring climax, not to mention the kind of structurally sound climax in which what must happen does. The final solution to dealing with the Q-bomb involves a sacrifice that is handled with the appropriate dramatic power. If only Clarke and Baxter had had the bottle to follow through. Instead, we’re suddenly smacked upside the head by a two-page denouement that upsets the entire thing with the most baffling of narrative twists. In the interest of bringing closure to two characters in particular (which it doesn’t really do), while leaving much of the rest of the story with no closure of any kind, it actually plays like the prologue of a completely new novel. Within the space of two pages, a potential “Wow!” ending collapses into a black hole of “WTF?” What is this, another sequel setup? A segue into a whole new series? This is what we’ve gone through all three books’ worth of ordeals for? Swell. Maybe the Firstborn had a point coming to get us, after all.