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Firstborn by Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter
Review by Ernest Lilley
Del Rey Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345491572
Date: 26 December 2007 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Arthur C. Clarke Foundation: Biography / Show Official Info /

It's not often that the conclusion to a trilogy, especially one that couples an old grand master with a younger one, is something worth looking forward to. Firstborn defies the odds to turn in the conclusion (mostly) to a tale that has elements of the familiar (ancient artifacts buried on another world, an even more ancient race meddling with humanities destiny) and the new (pocket universes filled with time slices, quantum bombs, and the sacrifice of a world). All in all, it's a fine job, and one I'd been looking forward to.

Bissea Dutt was once a member of the British Army, but that was before she was catapulted into a pocket universe filled with slices of time from all the ages of humanity, and even a few from before us. In the first book, Time's Eye, Bissea met up with some interesting folks from Earth's past, including a young Rudyard Kipling and Alexander the Great, and helped hold off the onslaught of Genghis Khan on the mishmashed version of Earth they called Mir. In the second book, Sunstorm, she was transported back to the Earth she'd known. She arrived home just in time to try to help defend humanity from a massive solar storm created by the same aliens that made Mir, the Firstborn.

Now it's a few decades later, but she's still the same age, roughly, having jumped forward in time through more prosaic and Clarkian means, which is to say suspended animation. We gather that she'd wanted to escape some of her own fame and let things cool down a bit, but when the sleeper wakes she finds that she's right in the thick of things again. Whisked up a space elevator and off world by her daughter Myrna, just one step ahead of the authorities, Bissea takes a trip to Mars to view the last remaining alien artifact (nearly) in the solar system, an extra-dimensional "eye" buried under the ice of Mars. The eyes had been the devices through which the "Firstborn" operated, and were as much gateways to other places and universes as spies, but when the sunstorm came they all disappeared...except this one, trapped in place by a long dead race that failed to save themselves when the Firstborn came an eon ago.

If dropping a Jovian size world into our sun didn't quite wipe us out, the Firstborn have a doozy of a plan B in place, or maybe it's a Plan "Q" for quantum bomb. Either way, it's headed for Earth, and though there may be a planet left in the end, we won't be around to see it.

While the humans in our future try to find a way to stop the Q Bomb from striking, Bissea takes a journey to the far side of time to contact allies who had faced the Firstborn once before, and almost fought them to a standstill. The upcoming battle will determine the fate of humankind, and indeed of all sentient species yet to be born, as Bessa tries to phone home on her faithful cell phone.

Indeed, the cell phone is a pretty bright AI in its own right, and one of the most engaging characters in this trilogy. He's the new HAL-9000, though he's never turned on anyone, and we missed him in the second book, where he lay out of power in a temple on Mir. Now he's back and full of juice and ready to phone home to save the world.

It would be easy to map the plots, devices, and characters into Clarke's (and Baxter's) body of work. Both have long been interested in stories that span billennia, evolution of sentience, and the finite resources of the universe. We won't do the analysis for you right now, because that would be nit-picking, and the series, which appears to either end or move onto a new playing field at the end of the book deserves to be enjoyed for the good work it is.

By odd coincidence, I'm writing this on Arthur C. Clarke's 90th birthday. Happy Birthday, Sir Arthur, and to both you and Stephen Baxter, thanks for bringing the Firstborn trilogy to life.

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