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Sunstorm by Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen BaxterUK edition3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsSunstorm is a curious followup to Time’s Eye, and one that, at first blush, makes you worry that these authors have stooped about as low as they can for the almighty paycheck. Where Time’s Eye was an inventive trek across an alternate Earth in which multiple timelines coexisted, Sunstorm is an end-of-the-world disaster novel. But darn it all if it isn’t an exhilarating one at the best of times. Clarke and Baxter know full well the lowbrow antecedents against which critics and readers alike will weigh this story, and they’ve made the wise decision to own up to them. There is more than one snarky reference to bad Bruce Willis movies. But while Sunstorm does not always avoid the Hollywood rigmarole itself, its authors make it all work by sticking faithfully to good science and by making inspired choices that tie everything in to the actions of the previous novel — to which it bears not a lot of resemblance.

Bisesa Dutt, the heroine of Time’s Eye, displaced on a frighteningly patchwork world that brought together Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great for a monster showdown in Babylon, has been returned to her own Earth by the ineffable Eyes. Over the intentions of these silent alien globes there rests complete obscurity, but they don’t seem to be the generally benign observers of that other odyssey series for which Sir Arthur is so well known. 

Bisesa is returned to her London home the day after she was abducted from Afghanistan, though five years passed for her on that strange other world. The day after her return, the sun smacks the Earth with a major storm called a coronal mass discharge. This is a burst of such force that electromagnetic pulses blanket the globe, knocking out all kinds of machinery and even killing a number of people. The event is sufficiently disastrous that, like September 11, its date becomes a placeholder in the human lexicon: July 9. 

But this isn’t the worst to come. Eugene Mangels, a young scientific prodigy studying neutrinos on the moon — the only guy to predict the July 9 event accurately — says that four years hence, on April 20, 2042, the sun will erupt again. And this time, the result will be a global extinction event, burning away the atmosphere and reaching so far out into the solar system as to evaporate Saturn’s rings.

It’s up to Siobhan McGorran, England’s Astronomer Royal, to stave off panic by spearheading an attempt to do something, anything, to deflect the oncoming horror. But it’s not as if you can do anything about the sun, after all. Finally the decision is made to embark on the most ambitious project in history, the construction of a shield as wide as the Earth’s diameter. Stationed at LaGrange Point 1, directly between the Earth and the sun, it will be contructed of a fine prismatic filament that will deflect most of the worst emissions from the ejection. It can’t do anything about x-rays or gamma rays, but perhaps the worst of the heat and other radiation can be kept from sterilizing the planet.

This is Hollywood high-concept delivered with true skill. Clarke and Baxter commendably reject lapses into cheap button-mashing sentiment (there’s really only one “mom, I love you” moment, and even that’s decently done) in favor of keeping this right on track as a hard SF thriller. In this regard, Stephen Baxter is a much, much better collaborator for Clarke than Gentry Lee, a writer who was only too happy to plunge headfirst into melodrama of the most mawkish sort. Respectful of its readers, Sunstorm may be the ne plus ultra of the Analog solve-the-problem story formula. However you choose to classify it, I was hooked. True, the book’s character development leaves much to be desired. The main players are given just enough depth to play their parts convincingly, which is the kind of thing any halfway competent screenplay would do. But the story is sufficiently well constructed to make you care about them and their plight. The climactic scenes have impressive dramatic heft, and are expertly paced to maximize suspense. Not surprisingly, there is even one poignant — and not at all smarmy — reference to 2001 near the end. And the plot is enriched when it begins to explore several key questions: how and why is the sunstorm happening? And what role do the mysterious Eyes play in the unfolding events? 

Inspired little moments pop up all over the book. The most impressive, I thought, was the way the authors linked the origin of the sunstorm to the origin of Christianity, though it will make this a novel not to give any fundamentalists in your family. It may seem somewhat unbelievable that much of the human race would come together to fight this crisis the way they do in the book. We have ample evidence from real life that substantial numbers of people respond to periods of crisis they lack the capacity to understand fully or the emotional fortitude to accept with denialism. Poul Anderson had a story in which humanity dooms itself by insisting on fighting each other rather than confronting a looming catastrophe, which came to mind as I was reading this book. Clarke and Baxter do address the issue of denialism and resistance on the part of certain groups of ideologues and fanatics, particularly in one key scene. Mostly, the book’s dramatic focus is on the coming sunstorm. And that helps to keep the story tight, though you might reasonably wish for some plot elements to be addressed in more detail. 

While it may not have quite the elemental force of such end-of-the-world classics as Greg Bear’s The Forge of GodSunstorm is a riveting, suspenseful epic that ought to sell pallet-loads. A book doesn’t always have to be innovative or cutting-edge to deliver the goods. Usually, cracking storytelling will do the job. This is one Sunstorm that’ll burn its way into your memory.

Followed by Firstborn.