Time Future, Maxine McArthur

Time Future, Maxine McArthur (1999)
Review by Ian Sales

The space station Jocasta lies far from Earth and is much more important in the galactic scale of things than those aboard it realise. Head of Station Halley is having enough trouble managing the station’s overloaded facilities, not to mention difficulties “negotiating” with the mysterious aliens who have blockaded Jocasta, or interpreting the gnomic utterances of a powerful alien resident who lives in the station’s non-oxygen-atmosphere section, or commanding her team of officers, including a gruff security chief, a cynical medical chief, plus handling the demands of assorted alien races, each with their own agenda. If all this sounds familiar, it should. Time Future reads like Babylon 5 fanfic.

This is not say it’s badly put-together. In the narrator, Commander Halley, McArthur has created an engaging heroine, and she relates the story with a readable combination of driven curiosity and pushed-past-the-brink weariness. Unfortunately, the world of the novel is furnished almost entirely from Central Casting, and there’s nothing in it that stands out as especially original. In the universe of Time Future, Earth was contacted by the Invidi during the late twenty-first century. These engimatic aliens helped humanity clean up its act, and then sponsored its membership in the Confederacy of Allied Worlds. Which is not really a confederacy, inasmuch as four alien races have FTL, and the remaining nine (which includes humanity) get to piggyback on their travels about the galaxy.

All this is relevant to the situation on Jocasta, which has found itself in an unenviable and untenable position – for reasons that never quite come clear in the plot. All that does seem understandable is that the space station will be admirably suited to be a B5-type neutral station once the aliens besieging it have been defeated. But no member of the Confederacy seems to be willing to do that.

Just to complicate matters, the first ever interstellar mission from Earth to Alpha Centauri, which was launched secretly ninety-five years earlier with Invidi help, has just turned up in the Jocasta system… which makes it thousands of light-years off course, nearly half a century late, and as it’s not FTL-capable its appearance is impossible anyway… The crew are no help: they were in cryostasis for the entire trip, and only three survived after the ship triggered a “jump mine” on its arrival in the Jocasta system.

Oh, and there’s also an alien killing machine loose on the station. It’s a member of a genetically-engineered warrior caste of one of the Four, which has supposedly been extinct for more than fifty years, and which the members of that race aboard Jocasta seem to know nothing about…

McArthur throws so many problems and puzzles at Halley, it’s no wonder her heroine seems to have trouble figuring out what’s going on. Not that McArthur helps, since she only doles out information as and when the plot requires it. The besieging aliens, for example, could have been resolved much sooner in the story, if Halley had had her wits about her. And that whole situation is a result of something which happened off-stage anyway, and is never actually resolved. Time Future is a story driven by secrets, all of which are supposed to intersect but all they really do is over-complicate the story. There are events in the past as well which reflect on the situation aboard Jocasta, and not all of them are relevant or resolved. It makes for a somewhat muddled novel.

Time Future won the George Turner Prize for Best Novel in McArthur’s native Australia. It was followed by a sequel, Time Past, in 2002. An unrelated near-future sf novel set in Japan, Less Than Human, was published in 2004. Since then McArthur appears to have had a few short stories published, but little else. That does seem a shame. Though it’s an eminently readable novel, Time Future is too busy and too familiar to feel like it really deserved its win.