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Time's Eye by Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen BaxterUK edition3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsQuick: you’re a writer, and you want to do a story in which Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan meet up in Babylon to go head to head in the mother of all battles. How do you pull it off? How about by shattering time itself? 

With Time’s Eye, Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter — representing two generations of hard SF street cred — pool their considerable talents to bring us a Michael Crichton novel. This may pour some cold water on the hopes of hard SF mavens everywhere, who would understandably have expectations that two of the most respected names in the field would put in the effort to produce something more substantial than action-adventure hokum. But though that’s all Time’s Eye is, it happens to be pretty dang enjoyable hokum. The book is every bit as entertaining as it is audacious, which is to say “very” on both counts. Yes, it lacks the intellectual drive and depth of each of its authors’ best work, treating its genuinely interesting scientific premise simply as a Hollywoodish high-concept hook upon which to hang a pretty conventional “castaways in time” adventure story. But even great minds need to kick up their heels every once in a while.

The tale begins with an event called the Discontinuity. Imagine if the Earth were a glass ball that was dropped and shattered, then all the pieces glued back together again — except in this case, each piece represents a different time period, and all the time periods put together cover some two million years of history. In a nod to 2001’s eerie Monoliths, the Discontinuity appears to have been caused by enigmatic globes called Eyes. They float silently above the landscape by the hundreds, and don’t respond to any external stimuli, including being shot at.

We meet a number of characters displaced in time, who find themselves on a suddenly unfamiliar globe in which the recombining of numerous landscapes from wildly disparate time periods is wreaking havoc with the weather (a brilliant detail). Representing the more-or-less present day — 2037 — are a trio of UN peacekeepers who were originally patrolling the Afghan/Pakistani border in a helicopter, plus a trio of cosmonauts coming home from a stint on the aging ISS. Then there are a group of British soldiers and their Indian sepoys from the mid-19th century, among whose company is none other than a 19-year-old Rudyard Kipling. There is also a hapless australopithecine female and her child from the mists of prehistory. And last but not least, we have Alexander and Genghis and their massive armies and entourages.

There isn’t a lot of depth to the characterizations beyond the bare requirements necessary to make the story work. Still, the authors engage in the pleasant conceit of making Kipling just a little effete and full of himself, and Alexander obsessed with his own death and legacy, insisting on leading his men into battle despite an arrow wound that stubbornly refuses to heal. (The authors wisely avoid the temptation to make Alexander a major character, though.) The novel’s putative heroine from the 2037 setting, Bisesa Dutt, receives the lion’s share of character development as she’s the one with whom the authors want readers to identify. On the other hand some of the supporting players are a bit much. One of the cosmonauts, a bitchy American woman named Sable, evolves into evil incarnate as the story progresses, for no reason other than that the plot requires her to. There’s no context given for why her personality is so maladjusted to begin with. Indeed, one of the Russian cosmonauts remarks that she’d never have passed their psych evaluations to be allowed to go into space at all, which pretty much proves she exists in the story to fill a stock role. 

The book’s latter chapters are its most involving. A battle scene is surprisingly effective, giving readers a real feeling of emotional investment in the unfolding chaos. And as we have suspected all along, the Eyes are Up To Something that can’t be much good, inexplicable as it may be. (It certainly was no accident that brought Alexander and Genghis Khan together...was it?) on the other hand, there’s a happy ending wrapping everything up — or most everything — that feels just a little tacked on. White spoiler text follows: Bisesa comes to some sort of understanding, shall we say, with the Eyes, and exactly how she does so isn’t satisfactorily explained.

There’s no doubt that Del Rey hoped to score major bestseller-list action with this title, if only by virtue of the latest pairing of the words “Clarke” and “Odyssey” on a book cover. But while I’m sure a number of people read this book, Time’s Eye probably won’t go on to attain the classic status of 2001, Rama, or most of Clarke’s better works. As for Stephen Baxter: if it brings him enough success to continue to produce his own intriguing stories with greater comfort, then so much the better.

The Del Rey hardcover edition of Time’s Eye included a CD-ROM that generously contained, in addition to interviews with the authors, complete e-book editions of Baxter’s novels Manifold: Time and Evolution. Followed by Sunstorm.