I have a theory or rather an equation - the fabulousness of a book is inversely proportional to the time taken to read it. The lesser the time taken to read the book, the more fabulous it is and vice-versa. I took all of three days to finish 'Firstborn' but then again I am a huge fan of sci-fi and I consider Arthur C Clarke as my guru.
First, an advice - Firstborn is not a standalone book. It is the 'concluding' book of the Time's Eye trilogy from the two authors and to better understand the context of the book, the characters and the places you should read "Time's Eye" & "Sunstorm".
The trilogy revolves around a sentient race of god-like aliens that have taken upon themselves to preserve the life of the universe by ensuring that species do not 'waste' the overall energy of the universe. In effect it means to preserve themselves and wipe out any other species by use of technology that they have mastered over eons of existence.
In "Time's Eye", the Firstborns create an alternate earth - called Mir - in its own parallel universe by patching toghether slices from earth's history much like preserving the best chapters of a book in a different file before destroying the original book. The central character across the series is a UN peacekeeper - Bisesa Dutt - trapped on Mir. She is the one who manages to establish some communication with the Orb-like-Eyes present all over on Mir and who agree to take her back to her time.
In "Sunstorm" the Firstborns launch a major sunstorm that has the potential to sterilise not just earth but even the astronauts on Mars. Rather than sitting back and waiting for the inevitable, Earth bonds together and launches a massive rescue campaign that involves creating a massive sun shield around the earth to deflect the solar flares.
"Firstborn" starts 37 years after Earth has survived sunstorm and rebuilt itself. It is a wary world on a lookout for the next attack from the Firstborns. A species that has diverged into multiple directions - those who stayed back on Earth, Spacers - those who live in spaceships between worlds and Martians - those who have settled on Mars. Each one of these have their own idealogies and don't trust the other while belonging to the same species. As the Firstborn launch their latest weapon - a Q Bomb - against the humans, the species has to come together to fight this latest attack. The Q Bomb is capable of destroying matter by sucking it into a small pocket universe and then expanding rapidly in a Big Rip tearing the planet apart.
Bisesa Dutt is woken up from her hibernation by the govt of Earth as she is only one who 'understands' the Firstborns and could help but she is 'kidnapped' by the Martians to show her an artifact that they have discovered at the pole. This turns out to be the 'Eye', the all-watching artifact of the Firstborns. The human settlement on Mars has been able to tap into Mir in the alternate universe and communicate with Bisesa's phone there. The Eye sends Bisesa to Mir where she is able to activate her AI phone by using the power from her martian suit and decipher that the alternate pocket universe of Mir will rip apart in 500 years. At the other end the fact that the Eye was trapped on Mars gives the indication that the Firstborns can be defeated.
Stephan Baxter and Arthur C Clarke make you push your boundaries of imagination and understanding as they combine regular universes with pocket universes, communication between these two universes and the planets, concepts of a Q Bomb being able to rip apart a palnet from the regular universe and trap it in an alternate universe only to be ripped apart later due to speedy expansion while bringing in sentient races that are hell bent on destroying all civilisations.
Present day Earth communicates with Patchwork Earth (Mir) to put up symbols that are a signal to patchwork Mars. Residents of Mir build giant trenches in the shape of the symbols in frozen Chicago and light the oil in them. The sole resident of patchwork Mars sees the symbols and crushes the Eye that they have trapped. This sends a distress signal to the Q-Bomb in the present day universe which diverts its path from Earth to Mars. Mars, in present universe, is sacrificed to save Earth. Beat that for imagination!
While the trilogy should have ended on this soul stirring note of Mars' sacrifice, the authors extend it further like a Bollywood movie that does not need to. The couple of pages at the end spoil the party and rather than giving you a clean ending set the stage for another set of prequels or sequels of whatever -quels that Stephan Baxter intends to write.
The book raises some pertinent questions about our universe. Do civilisations that reach intelligence first try to control the rise of other civilisations? How often have we done that on our own planet? Do sentient civilisations have the right to decide how other civilisations live?
Being a fan of that fact that sci-fi pushes your imagination and of Arthur C Clarke, I rate the book 3.5/5.
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