Roger MacBride Allen

The Shores of Tomorrow (Chronicles of Solace #3), Roger MacBride Allen

Bantam Spectra, 2003, 493 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58365-4

It’s not uncommon for third volumes of trilogies to make up for lacklustre middle tomes. Heck, it’s not unknown for conclusions alone to save entire series. But what’s not as common is for trilogies to dissolve as blandly as the Chronicles of Solace does in The Shores of Tomorrow.

Actually, allow me to rephrase that: There is nothing strictly wrong with the way The Shores of Tomorrow wraps up the material first explored in The Depths of Time and The Ocean of Years. Nothing at all; the story of Solace is decently concluded, there’s a happy ending, characters get what they deserve and we finally see the logical implications of the series’ pet concepts.

But what could have been done in fifty pages was stretched out to nearly ten times that. Worse: beyond the obvious waste of time, this lack of concision ends up harming other areas of the trilogy.

If you can muster up the courage to go read my reviews of the trilogy’s first two volumes, it’s obvious that even from the first book, the series had serious pacing problems. Developments that could have been shown in a few lines took entire chapters to unfold, with preciously few marginal gains as far as pure entertainment was concerned. This tendency reaches an apex of sorts in The Shores of Tomorrow, especially when you consider the NovaSpot ignition sequence, a tense plot point that ends up spread over 90 pages of fluff.

It gets worse when you consider the useless plot threads that are carelessly thrown in the mix. Despite the “Chronicles of Solace” designation for the entire series, there’s little doubt that the real story told here is the one of Anton Koffield and his quest to uncover and then understand Oskar DeSilvo. All else is sideshow, which becomes increasingly intrusive as the third book unfolds and the action is indefinitely delayed. Book One had its share of sideshows, and they make a return here; Any competent editor would have cut the “Elber Malloon” scenes, so peripheral are they to the book’s main story. But no; they’re all there along with even more filler. I buy trilogies with the assumption that they contain enough material for three books; here, it becomes obvious, after the fact, that the Chronicles of Solace is a two-book, maybe even a single book’s worth of intrigue.

I can understand a deliberate and careful pacing when it’s leading up to something worthwhile, or when it’s sustained to enhance suspense. But there’s no real reason to delay anything in this story, especially given its race-against-the-clock quality as a failing world is at stake.

But this slow-poke pacing has another effect that may be even more disastrous: It allows the reader to think about the story as it goes along, and even start to out-think the writer. When Oskar DeSilvo outlines his grand unified theory of terraforming, cultural stagnation and technological development, we’ve been waiting for it so long that it comes off as obvious and maybe even trite. The “solution” to the terraforming crisis was implicit at the end of volume one, and the characters were just too blind to see it. Allen stretches his central concept so much that he nearly snaps it. The whole “Chronological Patrol” concept, already iffy at first glance, suffers a lot from the extended story treatment; I doubt that it would have been as unconvincing in a single zippy 400-page novel.

The other thing that bothered me about the trilogy’s intellectual climax is that it acknowledges humanity’s thirst for knowledge and innovation, and then immediately says that it can be delayed indefinitely. Not bloody likely, and that reflects badly on the series. Again; I doubt that I would have been so severe in the context of a short story or a single novel, but trilogies demand a higher degree of scrutiny.

Take scissors, start cutting, end with a 500-page singleton and maybe the Chronicles of Solace would be worth a recommendation. As it stands now, there’s far too much build-up for too little pay-off. There are a few good ideas, the second volume has nifty material and the ending is suitably optimistic, but frankly, you could read three better single novels for the time and money you’d otherwise spend on this series. It’s no wonder if the last two volumes didn’t even get a hardcover edition.

The Ocean of Years (Chronicles of Solace #2), Roger MacBride Allen

Bantam Spectra, 2002, 441 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58364-6

It is true that publishers are in the business of making money, not telling the truth. Still, you have to wonder at the relationship between the two when marketing ploys backfire. When, for instance, books like Roger MacBride Allen’s The Depths of Time come out and the only reference to it as the first book of a trilogy is buried, by inference, in the author’s note. Readers (and reviewers) charge through the novel only to find an ending that doesn’t solve much. And then Bantam Spectra wonders why sales tank.

Unfortunately, sequel The Ocean of Years suffered from the stupidity of the original book’s marketing: Whereas the first volume was available in trade paperback format, this one was relegated to a cheapo mass-market paperback debut edition. As consolation, the follow-up book is more forthright about what it is, as can be read on the title page: “Second book of The Chronicles of Solace.”

When we’d last left series protagonist Anton Koffield, he had just found out why he was marooned 128 years in a future not his own: A devilish plot by mastermind Oskar DeSilvo to prevent him from telling a secret too soon. But a lot of things happen in 128 years, and so Koffield also happened to come across nagging clues leading him to the current hideout of DeSilvo. As The Depths of Time ended, we were left with one certitude: Koffield was going to solve the puzzle, track down DeSilvo and ask him a few good questions.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise if he does exactly that in the sequel. Travelling with a band of characters with as much interest in DeSilvo’s answers, Koffield makes his way to the Solar System of year 5341. Then their group splits up in search of clues, sending emissaries to Earth itself and the Grand Library in orbit around Neptune.

One of the book’s highlight happens then, as three characters make their way through the gargantuan Permanent Physical Collection, a mega-library to end all libraries. So big that they have to hike in it, making their way from own human-livable reading room to another (the books are kept in a pure nitrogen atmosphere to ensure their preservation) to find out the real state of the physical terraforming collection as opposed to the one in the digital archives. Library freaks are sure to enjoy this passage, much like another latter one in a forbidden museum. MacBride Allen surely knows how to exploit environments that should be dear to anyone likely to be reading this trilogy.

Secrets, archives, knowledge and patient clue-hunting form the backbone of this second volume. Save for a desperate what-are-they-going-to-do-now sequence in chapters 18-20, and a tiny act of physical violence at the very end of the book, there isn’t much conventional action in The Ocean of Years. It’s all exploration, searching, deduction and cogitation. Old-school science-fiction by any yardstick, this is the kind of comfortable genre novel that would be familiar for any pre-New Wave SF reader in the Asimov vein. There is nothing beyond a PG rating in this trilogy so far.

Alas, the pacing is just about what you’d expect from brainy novels that take place in libraries. Just like in the first volume, the first hundred pages don’t mean much. Just like in the first volume, we spend a lot of time going from one place to another. Just like in the first volume, the characters think a lot before they ever act. It’s not a bad thing per se (it certainly creates an atmosphere, maintains the suspense and heighten the action whenever there is some) but there’s no telling what a more succinct version of the same events might have gained. The prose is compelling enough that it doesn’t matter a whole lot if it’s 400 pages rather than 200, but if the difference would have been a single 600-pages tome rather than a full 1200-pages trilogy, well, I know where my loyalties lies.

Still, don’t think that I’m giving anything less than a good rating to this book and the series as it stands at the end of the second volume. There’s a lot of well-developed ideas here, a bunch of sympathetic characters, crystal-clear prose and a great sense of discovery as we peel away the layers of this imagined universe. Stay tuned for the final review of this trilogy.

The Depths of Time (The Chronicles of Solace #1), Roger MacBride Allen

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.

The Modular Man, Roger MacBride Allen

Bantam Spectra, 1992, 306 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29559-4

There are no surer ways to inflame a crowd of Science-Fiction geeks than to try to define the “mission” of the genre. Some will argue that there is none; others will use this as a tangent to discussing the definition of SF; others will simply sneak away for more snacks.

As with many other experienced SF geeks, I tend to be amongst the group that slinks away for more food. Not only because I’m a hungry fellow or because the debate tends to be invariably circular, but mostly because I’ve made my peace a long time ago with what SF should be. And that, constant reader, would be a literature of ideas.

Of course, SF should be well-written, packed with vibrant characters and constant entertainment. But that’s not the point. You can walk into any mall bookstore, head for the general fiction section and pick non-genre novels that do all that. But what other literature can seriously examine the human impacts of technological change? Which other literature always starts with “What if?” (Well, okay, Fantasy is the other one) Where else can you read accessible book-length dramatization of future issues that will soon preoccupy us? In Science-Fiction. Purely and simply.

Certainly, the good old school of SF understood this: A standard template for an Analog magazine story was to find a scientific issue, derive a consequent problem with the power of affecting human lives, discuss the issue and then offer a solution to the problem. Hundreds, thousands of stories have been written to that specification. Some were good, some not-so-good, but most of them were unabashed SF.

It’s in this techno-problematic tradition that we must place Roger MacBride Allen’s The Modular Man. There isn’t much of a plot (dying scientist downloads self in machine, political interests try to convict the robot, courtroom drama ensues), but the novel certainly features a thorough examination of the upcoming blur between humans and cyborgs, along with euthanasia, immortality, wealth hoarding and other such philosophical trifles.

Fortunately, The Modular Man is explicit in what it tries to do. Fourth in the short-lived “The Next Wave” didactic SF series (published in the early nineties by Bantam Spectra), the book comes packaged with an after-word on “Intelligent Robots” written by none other than Isaac Asimov. It’s a good piece, though the novel naturally offers most of the same ideas in a more entertaining (albeit longer) fashion.

What MacBride Allen sets up in his narrative is nothing else but an excuse to explore the legal nuts-and-bolt issues that might one day surround the artificial enhancements of humans. The Modular Man isn’t set particularly far in the future, and the writing style of the novel is much closer to legal thrillers than to more stereotypical SF. There’s certainly a lot of reasonable-sounding realism throughout the book, even though there may be too many issues to untangle simultaneously. But that’s what happens when all of your subplots relate to your central theme.

As fiction, The Modular Man isn’t much of a show-stopper. The characters are serviceable, but their places in the narrative are clearly delimited. (And yet… and yet… you’d be surprised at how moving some passages of the book are.) The plotting all leads up to the predictable Big Courtroom Victory, though there are a few twists here and there. The writing style is brisk and businesslike.

But as idea-fiction, The Modular Man is nearly exemplary. Ever chapter raises and interesting question or two, and even offers sort of a proposed solution, or at least a path worth exploring. There’s a definite pleasure in peeking in the future in that fashion; barring significant progress in nanotech, the increased reliance on artificial body parts is inevitable… and so will be the legal issues surrounding extended life-spans, artificial minds, non-humanoid bodies and such. So why don’t to get a conceptual head-start on everyone else and start studying tomorrow’s headlines now?