Del Rey, 2006 reprint of 2005 original, 356 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-45251-8
Freakishly obsessive readers of these reviews have probably noticed a shift in my attitude toward Science Fiction over the past few years. I read less of it (non-fiction seems more interesting to me these days), I don’t look at it so uncritically and I get less and less patient with its self-indulgences. Anyone would be forgiven to conclude that I’m slowly moving away from the genre.
But that’s not true: SF is still my favourite genre, and I’m going to use Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter’s Sunstorm as my proof. Because the real test of a fan is whether they can still find something worthwhile in an otherwise average genre novel. Sunstorm won’t go down as any kind of classic (in fact, barely five years after its publication, it has already faded away) and yet I was able to sink into it like a warm comforter. It’s a book that I can read on auto-pilot, almost without any effort given how close the novel’s assumptions are to my own. From the moment the dumb premise is explained and the real meat of the novel is exposed, it’s pure classic old-school SF, and it made me smile even though I can acknowledge that I have already forgotten/forgiven most of its dull or ridiculous parts.
As the second entry in the as-of-yet-unfinished “Time’s Odyssey” series, Sunstorm is supposed to be a follow-up to Clarke/Baxter’s Time’s Eye (2004), but save for a very loose tying of both novels together by common antagonists and a viewpoint character, there’s little link between the two stories. While Time’s Eye imagined a showdown between Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan on an Earth littered with slivers of its own past for no greater rationale than alien amusement (talk about a fanboy premise run amok), Sunstorm features the same plot-justifying aliens destabilizing the sun. After an initial catastrophe early in the novel during while the sun pulses once with devastating results, scientists discover that within five years another building pulse of energy will essentially fry all of Earth.
That’s when the fun begins. Because while nearly every other non-genre writer would jump on an opportunity to write about a world coming to grip with its imminent destruction, both Clarke and Baxter hail from the old can-do school of SF as an hymn to human ingenuity. Rather than roll over and wait for the ultimate sunburn, much of humanity unites behind a grandiose project to build a planet-sized shade that will deflect enough of the radiation.
I have always been very susceptible to engineering-fiction, and so within pages of the project’s inception, Sunstorm was making me purr with details of how such a shield could be launched, built, assembled and steered. Scientists come up with a series of solutions to bewildering technical problems, religious fundamentalists mount attacks on the project, hardy blue-collar workers assemble everything in orbit, governments mount last-ditch defenses to further alleviate the effect of the impending sun-storm and readers gets to enjoy a classic SF novel. The prose is direct, the conflicts aren’t complex, the resourcefulness of the characters is considerable and the enemies are clearly identified (so are the fools, who deservedly burn after disregarding helpful scientific advice): Sunstorm can’t claim to sophistication, and that’s part of its charm. As comfort reading for people having grown up on a certain type of Science Fiction, it’s hard to beat.
As a follow-up to Time’s Eye, it’s too disconnected to be of much use: It solves no questions and just uses the alien threat as another plot driver. But as a reminder of how much fun SF can be when it gets down to the essentials of why it exists as a genre, it’s a highly enjoyable read even though it’s not much of an elegant piece of fiction. SF fans will love it, non-SF fans will dismiss it, and sometimes that’s exactly how genre novels should be.