Review: Stephen Baxter's 'Time' and My Thoughts on 'Hard Sci-Fi'

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Have you ever read a book twice without realising it?
Gotta admit, it's a sexy cover

I found myself in this situation with Stephen Baxter's Time.

Perhaps already this is a sign that the review won't be a ringing endorsement by the fact that you can wander down the same plot twice without it sticking with you, and my kneejerk reaction was certainly one of frustration because of this. But in the end I found that in it's way Time was worth recommendingIt led me to think about the 'hard sci-fi' genre in general, my relationship with it, and what books like these are really trying to achieve.

Digging into 'Hard Sci-fi'

I'll confess now, I'm not a 'proper' sci-fi fan. I grew up with The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 on TV: for me sci-fi has always been a vehicle for cool alien designs, exploration and character driven plots in strange surroundings. When I got older I loved Doctor Who and the playground of history and space that it offered us, and when Doctor Who declined in quality I slipped into Rick and Morty. In films I can appreciate something more dystopian, but they have to be on a firm foundation of wonder, style and adventure. All things considered, sci-fi for me if an ultimately optimistic open world wrought with unique challenges - a final frontier.

My taste in sci-fi books follows the same lines as my taste in fantasy and historical novels . I'm a sucker for good character development, and for these concepts to work and be fully realised they need to hang on an already solid plot... like a murder mystery for example (see: Altered Carbon). I want to fall in love with characters and be taken on a journey, and I want to see the strange intelligently thought out setting through a protagonist's empathetic gaze while something tangible drives the plot along. It might not be 'proper' sci-fi, but it's damned entertaining.
The trouble was - is- that so much proper 'hard' sci-fi hangs on...seemingly nothing but concept.

 The key, I think, with 'hard' sci-fi is that it's central aim is one of realistic world building, or to illustrate and interesting scientific concept. They are usually fantastically well researched, intelligent and incredibly detailed. I picked up Time at first years and years ago in a charity shop, determined to immerse myself in 'proper' sci-fi and once and for all declare myself a 'proper' geek....and I hated it. It bored me to tears, it was so stale.
'High Sci-fi' was to me what Jules Verne was to H.G.Wells: on the one 'hard' Verne side you had blueprints, on the other 'soft' Wells side you had story.

'Hark! A Vagrant' perfectly illustrates the difference.

But time marches on, as does the vague sense of guilt for not being a 'proper' geek. After reading the non-fiction book In Search of Schrodinger's Cat I thought it was high time that I tried 'hard sci-fi' again now that I had a better understanding of some of those more interesting quantum theories. Little did I know that when I picked up that sexy book cover it was the exact same book again

I smelled a rat when I got deja vu about hyper-intelligent squid and space sex.

The cover on my first read..not so sexy.
What is Time About?

Time tells the story of Emma Stoney ...until the book abruptly decides that the main character is actually Reid Malenfant. 

It starts off slow, taking the reader through the challenges of the Bootstrap corporation as Malenfant - a failed astronaut and maverick - works against NASA and the governments to cobble together his own funded voyage into space. Emma is his ex-wife and leads the legwork in keeping the company afloat, batting off officials who would like to pull them under as Malenfant takes greater and greater risks. One fly in the ointment in Cornelius Taine, who arrives out of the blue at Emma's door, pushing for a meeting with Malenfant to hijack his aspirations away from simple material wealth and forwards into avoiding the doom of humanity itself by interpreting messages from the future. Initially dismissed as a nutjob by Emma, he captures Malenfant's attention and takes the couple and the company on a dangerous course.
Meanwhile hyper-intelligent children are popping up all over the world, spooking their parents and the governments around them. Could they signal the end of humanity as we know it?

It's hard to talk about Time without entirely spoiling the story, especially since it doesn't pick up at all until well past the middle of the book. Suffice to say there is space travel, the concept of messages from time are explored and, in the end, Baxter puts forward a very bittersweet idea about what one of the purposes of humanity might be if we actually were alone in the universe. What it might mean if aliens don't exist? What sort of life would it be if human beings succeeded enduring all the way to the end of this empty universe?

The 'Hard Science' of Time: Does it Fare Better on a Second Readthrough?

I have to admit that, once I had gotten past the first half of the book (and the endless shuttling of Emma back and forth to meetings), I found myself rather caught up in the scientific realism of it once the action started. When the team managed to get into space Baxter describes future technologies - such as false gravity- in a realistic way, and keeps at his heart the image of space as a great ordeal full of both wonder and constant indignities. What's more the idea of using a hyper intelligent cephalopod as an astronaut was inspired, and gave us the more interesting character in the book.

Black holes are scary, yo.
When it came to describing the concept of messages from time he made a wise choice to use different characters to explain the difficult concept in different ways, with Cornelius as the expert, Emma as the practical layman, and Malenfant as the idealist somewhere in-between. In Search of Schrodinger's Cat helped me a great deal with the basics, and I think without it I would have struggled, as I did before on my first readthrough when I was younger. The bleak picture of the future it gave (before the final flourish) was one that again was helped from reading the final chapters of books like Centuries of Change, and how humanity seems doomed to slide away from the current 'golden age' and turn against itself into something more brutal and old fashioned. The Blue Children served as a decent enough catalyst and focus for this downturn, but they fundamentally didn't strike the right note as characters for me. Similarly, the whole reason for messages from the future boils down to the 'inevitability' of the 'Carter Catastrophe', which is a central concept that - while based on real theories- is one that I didn't accept in part because I couldn't convincingly wrap my head around the assumptions that they leapt to from basic (flawed?) statistics.

Finally the scientific view of the universe in the book is one that was frightening and also beautiful - massive chaos, but with fierce possibility...up until the point of hopelessness. The descriptions of how the universe itself could be mined by people in the far future has the black triumph that I appreciated in Doctor Who's Utopia episode - a triumph and yet a withering defeat. A whimper, not a bang. And this leads to the final act that again was quite a blackly impressive question: what is the purpose of human life if we are alone?

But...Was Time An Entertaining Read as a Story?

In the end, despite having read it for a second time, my first emotions at the end of the book were ones of frustration and fatigue. It took a good few days for the book to sit with me as a whole before I could come around to appreciating it for what it showed me with the science parts of the science-fiction. But the fiction parts left me cold, which is why this, for me, will always be a book that ends up off my shelf and in the donation pile.

Sheena 5. The most human character.
Emma Stoney was an interesting enough character, though we don't have much chance to actually sit in her head or see her doing much else but deal with Malenfant's crap. I like that she is independant and a capable business woman while being tied to him for reasons she understands and accepts despite her own common sense - that could have been more interesting if developed even further. But she still seems flat, being pulled along by events, initially presented as the protagonist until the book realises that Malenfant is the guy they want to haul through the sequels. Similarly Maura Della - a politician- is another strong capable woman who was actually quite well drawn out, but the way both their endings are handled seems, in my opinion, to short change them by - quite literally - treating them as fundamentally interchangeable. Also there is a theme of childlessness with the two of them that at times seems to be a decent enough avenue into a commentary on how they don't feel connected to mankind's future, but at other times comes across as a little condescending - it just doesn't quite hit the note it needs to.

Malenfant himself is on the periphery throughout most of the book, and not as charming as he needs to be as a protagonist. Though he grows on you by the time the team get into space I never found myself particularly interested in him. He's meant to be a maverick, but I found myself emphasising more with Emma's groans at the inevitable paperwork he creates rather than his ambitions. Cornelius works well enough as the shifty point of intelligence to drive the plot along that no one really trusts, but the story seems to enjoy picking on him for the sake of it. But he redeems himself more at the end - a serious injury later on had a genuine emotional resonance - while never being fully 'redeemed' into a likable character
Stephen Baxter
which...I liked.

As for side characters, the blue children were entirely unsympathetic, which was I believe the intention since we - as homo sapiens - are supposed not to trust them and to be afraid of them. But they become more irritating than real threats and some of the images used later on that are associated with them are just silly. You never get a proper closure on who they are as people and they seem to fall flat rather than being fleshed out yet still mysterious. The true star of the show was, instead, Sheena the hyper intelligent cephalopod, and - credit where credit's due - Baxter did a fantastic job of writing in a way that was both animalistic and sympathetic when her parts were in the book.

Finally the storytelling itself was bland and choppy with several little chunks under honest-to-god name headers. I understand the need to bounce around different characters' heads in a story like this, but it defeated a sense of flow and further put roadblocks in front of your developing much empathy for the characters.

So should you pick up Time and the Manifold Series?

In the end, Stephen Baxter is clearly a very intelligent man, and there are quite a few things in Time  that are well worth a look. For me, the story just didn't hit the right notes, but that could be due to my general dislike of the priorities that 'High Sci-Fi' have. For me story and characters always should come first, and in Time they're more vehicles to take the reader into various realisations of scientific ideas.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, give it a whirl. You'll certainly learn something interesting.

What do you think? Did you enjoy 'Time' if you read it?

What is your relationship with the Hard Sci-fi genre?

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