Time Future, Maxine McArthur

Warner Aspect, 1999 (2001 reprint), 445 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60963-3

Looking at the recent SF production of 1999-2001, it does seem ironic that at the very turn of the century, some of the most vital novels of the genre are from non-American authors. You might even call it the revenge of the British Commonwealth, what with Britain (Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter) and Canada (Robert J. Sawyer, Robert Charles Wilson) churning up excellent material. Now Australia joins the pack, with the ubiquitous-yet-unseen Greg Egan, and now Maxine McArthur. It’s much too early to say whether McArthur will establish herself as a first-rate writer, but Time Future is an interesting first novel that bodes well for her next.

Arriving on American shores in paperback form nearly two years after original publication, Time Future comes pre-packaged with a few choice quotes and even an award, the George Turner Prize for best Australian SF novel. Try to lower your expectations, though; at its heart, Time Future remains a standard space-station-bound space-opera the sort of which Babylon-5 did so well.

On the other hand, Babylon-5 never dropped its characters in such a prolonged nightmare: As Time Future begins, the Jocasta station’s been under siege for over a year. No transit, no supplies, not even any communication with the outside universe. No trace of a rescue attempt either. Inside the station, things are looking grim, what with a growing refugee problem, failing environmental systems, increased hysteria amongst the factions aboard the station and no hope in sight.

Commander Halley is the one who must deal with this situation, and after more than a year, even the strongest women can falter under the constant stress. Nightmares, personality conflicts and plain desperation are her daily torments. As if that wasn’t enough, the novel piles up the difficulties: The blockading aliens want to talk to her, the alien factions inside the station aren’t helping at all, a mysterious ship is cause for more questions than answers, an alien trader is killed in an impossible fashion and her estranged alien ex-husband comes back to haunt her.

It’s definitely not a cheerful novel. No one will be blamed if they’re tempted to fast-forward rather than slog through more than 400+ pages of claustrophobia, depression, no hot showers and constant peril.

Through it all, though, McArthur creates a fascinating universe. Perhaps reflecting Australia’s geopolitical status vis-a-vis the United States, her humans are merely bit-players on the galactic stage. They barely rent out faster-than-light travel, own a station more through chance than merit (it’s not even human-built) and more or less acknowledge that they can be wiped out at any time. Hmm. (Someone could build a fascinating thesis comparing and contrasting this attitude against the British post-colonialism and the American hegemonism. But that’s not going to happen in this review.)

As far as the novel itself is concerned, Time Future is merely adequate. It can be read, and eventually picks up some narrative steam, but it’s not much of a page-turner. The details are convincing but not mesmerizing. The writing doesn’t flow as easily as it should for a mystery/adventure such as this one. The characterization is well-done, though maybe more by piling up problems on the characters rather than making them sympathetic. (The protagonist herself is afflicted with yet another one of those “murdered relatives” trauma.)

Still, it’s a relatively enjoyable novel. The mystery isn’t as interesting as it thinks it is (not all the required facts are available to the reader from the onset), but it’s fun to piece together the various parts of the narrative. Hey, it’s a promising debut.

Finally, it occurs to this reviewer that the claustrophobic setting of the Jocasta station is in fact an ideal way to introduce the first novel in a space-opera series. Further volumes may uncover and fully use the complexity of the galaxy unveiled in Time Future, much like David Brin’s Uplift series had to wait until volume six to really expand the scope of the action. Who knows?

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