Bantam Spectra, 2000, 426 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37811-2
Looking at Roger MacBride Allen’s bibliography, one gets an awful glimpse in the life of a professional science-fiction writer. It’s a bizarre mis-mash of media novel (including a Star Wars trilogy), sharecropped series (“Isaac Asimov’s”), an unfinished series (“Hunted Earth”), some small-press publications and a scattering of novels which may or may not be singletons. Then there is his latest “Chronicles of Solace” trilogy, of which The Depths of Time is the first volume.
While I have generally enjoyed a few of his earlier single works (The Modular Man and Farside Cannon, both solid SF books), this bibliography shows how difficult it is to be a working mid-list SF writer in today’s industry. Media tie-in and sharecropped series may not be glamorous, but they help to pay the bills. Unfortunately, they also plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of fans like me; Is he still capable of writing “honest” SF?
The Depths of Time answers that question reassuringly. Despite some annoyances caused by the book’s role as the first volume in a trilogy, it’s a solid SF novel that ought to satisfy anyone looking for straight-up genre fiction.
By far the biggest flaw of the book is how long it takes to set up all the elements of its world. It takes seventy-five pages to explain how the “Solace” universe is linked by a complex system of long-cryo starships and time-travel wormholes. Then we spend a few pages in the Grand Library around Neptune. And then nearly twenty-five pages to show how badly the terraforming on Solace is failing.
In short, it takes more than a hundred pages to get to the main story. It’s a lot for any 400-pages novel, but it’s marginally more palatable for a 1200-pages trilogy. (This being said, only sharp-eyed readers will discerns the suggestion, in the acknowledgements, that this will be a “two or three” book series. Even the moniker “Chronicles of Solace” is taken from the subsequent volumes sitting on my shelves. Stupid editor, Caveat emptor!) Fortunately, it’s not uninteresting setup: MacBride Allen is a professional, and all of this laborious background is dramatized in an interesting fashion. He even manages to make us sorry about the death of a character barely twenty pages after her introduction.
At least the story starts rolling along soon after: As a starship captain wakes up from cryo, he finds himself in the right solar system… but more than a hundred and twenty-five years too late! The ship has been sabotaged, and one of the passengers has to face the fact that his mission has failed: How useful will his warnings of impending terraforming doom be if he’s more than a century too late?
The most engaging characteristic of The Depths of Time is how is keep son piling revelations and further mysteries as it roars forward. All the setup of the first hundred pages progressively starts paying off and even if some revelations can be guessed simply from dramatic deduction (“Oh, I wonder why those two events are introduced…?”), there is a lot to like in the gradual discovery of secrets, all the way to the very last chapter. Time-travel, vast archives and terraforming aren’t new ideas, of course, but they’re here used in interesting fashions. This is a first volume of a trilogy and while it’s not satisfying by itself, it does a great job in setting the stage for the rest of the series.
It’s also quite good in how it defines its characters. Protagonist Anton Koffield is tortured, humiliated, and marooned decades after his era, but he’s a solid and capable hero; I look forward to his next adventures. Minor characters also get some viewpoint time, with involving results. MacBride Allen even manages to give life to two characters whose presence in the action is more legendary than physical. All in all, coupled with the clear style and the top-notch technical aspects of the writing, it’s a good example of perfectly decent core science-fiction.
I’m often prompt in bitching about media tie-ins, declining authors and substandard science-fiction, but The Depth of Time is none of those things. Welcome back, Roger. It’s been a long time since your last “honest” SF novel. We’ve missed you.