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Space Books Media Book Reviews

ChronoSpace 95

Bonker writes: "When I first picked up 'ChronoSpace', parts of which were published earlier in 'Asimov's Science Fiction', it initially looked like an interesting time-travel thriller-- something we've seen many of, but not a story that gets old due to its variations. Indeed, the story starts out revolving around the central premise that the small percentage of UFO's sighted that can't be explained away as airplanes, comets, or blimps, are in actuality time-travelling ships from the future sent to investigate the past." Read on for Bonker's thoughts on how the book progresses from there.
author Allen Steele
pages 320
publisher Ace Books
rating 1/10 Boo! Hiss!
reviewer Bonker
ISBN 0441008321
summary A promising time-travel concept with a flawed and disappointing execution.

It's an intriguing concept and one that the author explores with relish. Indeed, one of the two main characters in the story spends a great deal of his time exploring the social climate of pre-World War II Germany during Hitler's rise to power. After the initial concept is explained, however, the story starts to break down.

The author seems infinitely more interested in name-dropping other, more successful sci-fi authors and scientists. Steele has done his research on obscure historical persona, but he can't seem to fix the holes in his own story.

A good example in terms of broken plot is the fictional scientific principle the author uses to drive his time-travel ships. It's called the 'Morris-Thorne' principle in the story, obviously named after the scientists who discovered it. Since this *is* a time-travel story, when a character named Morris is introduced, the observant reader would think that the author is stitching his story together, trying to subtly explain things to the reader. The observant reader would be wrong, because this angle is never touched again. In fact, the author rather absent-mindedly contradicts the possibility later in the story.

Another good example is the date scheme that Steele uses to identify his chapters. After the inevitable 'uhoh, we caused a paradox' event in the middle of the story, one of the dates listed mysteriously jumps from Monday, January 14th, 1998 to Thursday, January 15th, 1998. (The latter is correct. Monday was the 12th in 1998.) In any other kind of story, this kind of discrepancy could be easily dismissed as an editorial oversight. In a time-travel story, it's *supposed* to be a dead giveaway, just like the next date problem, when it jumps from a correct day in 1998 to an incorrect day in 1997. It's not any kind of giveaway. It's an editing mistake, and a painful one at that.

What's really amusing about this is that, earlier in the story, one of the characters makes the case for having to know the exact time and date in order to time-travel correctly. Apparently having the wrong date doesn't make much of a difference to their calculations when they use it to time-travel because it's never mentioned again. Neither are the other limitations on time-travel the author introduces, such as the inability of time-travellers to breach the first millennium or earlier.

The book is ridden with inconsistencies like this. I'm not sure if it's laziness or incompetence on the part of the author or if Mr. Steele was stuck with a rhesus monkey for an editor, but in a story where incidental details matter so much, these otherwise trivial errors are hard to forgive.

The climax of the book is a first-degree act of Deus Ex Machina, perpetrated by judgmental aliens who are super-intelligent and somehow immune to paradox. It's hard to swallow by the time you've already waded through the rest of the story's problems. The cautionary ending is bitter and disappointing. Steele successfully deviates from formula in this respect, but only at the cost of making his painfully static, flat characters seem even more depressive and uninteresting.

I have to conclude that 'ChronoSpace' is simply not worth the time it takes to read, even for the most adamant of sci-fi or time-travel fans. Even if you completely dismiss the amount of smugness the author shows dropping modern and historical names, the story is rife with inconsistencies, errors, and writing blunders. The characters are flat and uninteresting. Any chance they have to grow is brutally crushed by this steam-roller of a plot that Steele's trying to push. The one thing that could redeem a story like this was if it were inspiring or offered some new insight on the philosophy of time travel. Instead, Steele tries to be cautionary. It's hard to convincingly cautionary when the moral of your story is, "Don't mess with time travel, or easily angered super-aliens will destroy your planet's civilization." In fact, if Steele has anything to say about inspiration in ChronoSpace, it's that inspiration is dangerous. Even carefully controlled forward advancement is harmful and should be avoided. I'm not sure if that's what he was trying to accomplish, but it's a major theme in the book nonetheless.

The hell of all this is that even up against the super-cautionary tone of the book, Steele could have easily done a better job with his story, even if it was just a quick read-through of his own work to correct some of the screaming errors he's made. He didn't, and it shows.

Don't waste your time with 'ChronoSpace'.

You can purchase ChronoSpace from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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  • by ewanrg ( 446949 ) <ewan.grantham@nOspAm.gmail.com> on Friday September 13, 2002 @10:36AM (#4251017) Homepage
    I am always interested in reading reviews about material I should read and hadn't heard about. I'm not so keen on spending time reading a review telling me that something I otherwise wouldn't have looked at anyway isn't worth the time and trouble. Just as the moderation guidelines suggest that it's better to raise the good than to punish the bad, I think that would have been a good idea here as well - give us a good review about something rather than spend the mindspace on this.

    Just my .02 worth...
    • Actually, I think there is a good time for negative reviews.

      There are two examples:

      1. When the subject matter is bad, a negative review is useful for preventing the spending of money on experimental items - ie, the "impulse buy". If I look at a book/movie/game and wonder "Hm - I've got an extra $20 in my pocket I want to spend - maybe I'll buy this", a negative review is useful in filtering out the obvious non-choices.
      2. When it's just plain fun. There are some things so awful (Swimfan), to stupid (Daikatana), and so worthless (Space Bunnies Must Die!), that its fun just to see how someone will trash it. Sometimes, reading a good review of a bad product can be just as much fun as reading a bad review of a good product - no, wait, that makes no sense....
      • what if your reading a bad review of a bad review of a possibly bad product? but you cant determine if the product is bad or good because you may have thought that the bad review was actually a good review, but it got a bad review? thereby making your possible purchase of the good or bad product a bad decision to spend good money on something that had a review that was reviewed as bad?
    • Good reviews... (Score:3, Insightful)

      Does a good review, where the reviewer trashes a certain work, have a place in Slashdot? Certainly, if only so that you can avoid the book. Then again, a review is after all only the opinion of the reviewer, and you may find the book an interesting one even if he does not.

      A good review will give you a fairly good indication whether you will like the reviewed work or not, regardless of what the reviewer thinks. I have read reviews of films where the reviewer goes all-out to show us his disgust for the movie, after which I immediately made up my mind about having to see it. Good reviews provoke some sort of emotion in the reader. A bad review makes a bland read, and it will not tell me whether or not to pick up the book even though the reviewer is trying to persuade me one way or the other.

    • Due to the opinion of this book review, I got curious to what other people though of this book and took a look at their review. It seems more on the positive side at Amazon.com [amazon.com] (while still mixed), but I will let you be the judge of that.
    • Well, some people think so. Every third book review someone will complain that there are never any negative reviews, and the whole review section is just to drive up slashdot's income from the referral program at fatbrain.

      I don't think there'd be any point in a slashdot review of Business @ the Speed of Thought, but this is a book I might have bought otherwise, because the premise is interesting.
    • You didn't have to waste time reading the WHOLE review. Just do what I did... skip to the summary. I saw the rating (1/10 - Boo! Hiss!) and skipped right to the comments to get my troll on!
    • I like your idea, but you're forgetting about the rating on the top of the review. If you don't like reading bad reviews, then skip it. I like reading them because it helps with the impule buys (see comments below from others).

      Maybe /. needs a filter on reviews? "I don't want to see any reviews under 3" or something.

    • Frankly, it's refreshing to see negative reviews. Just about every other book I can remember had a rating of 7/10 or better... it made me start to wonder after a while whether the scale was getting top-heavy. (Think olympic figure skating. While it's technically on a 0-6 scale, I've yet to see anything below a 4.5 or so... so it's really a 4.5-6.0 scale.)

      It's nice to know that the reviews do have a critical eye and that - yes, when they say a book is a 7/10, it means that it's pretty darn good, not at the bottom of the heap.
  • Hey, where can I sign up to write reviews of other books that SlashDotters shouldn't buy?

    I love the recent trend in book reviews. We either get "this sucks" or "this is a positive yet vague review and here's a link to purchase it." Woo-hoo!
  • by Kredal ( 566494 )
    What with the flame called a book review, I would have thought the ObBN reference would say something like this:

    "You can purchase ChronoSpace from bn.com, but I don't know why you'd want to."

    I did like the "From the ... dept." byline though. Prepared me for a major book bashing, which is exactly what I got. (:
    • I did like the "From the ... dept." byline though.

      Hmm, for some bizarre reason the byline hasn't come up on my generated (due to login) page for this story. I had to go back to the homepage to see what it was...

      What's up with that?

  • WTF (Score:2, Insightful)

    by PcSarinIV ( 586574 )
    Speaking as a budding author, or maybe just a wannabe, I think that it is extremely important to plan your story in detail before you begin writing a novel length work. Research goes into the technology, the time, and pretty much everything else. This is why so many budding authors never make it past their first story.
    If they do, they are frequently in the same boat as this guy--glaring inconsistencies. For me the biggest challenge is remembering what one has written about certain locales, which in a fantasy setting is devastating. In a real-earth fiction, it shouldn't be as hard--you go and visit the place you are describing.

    Verbosity is no replacement for compentency.
    • As someone with a degree in creative writing, I have to disagree with you. It is not always necessary to sit down and plan a story before it's written. Now, granted, it depends on the genre, it takes a LOT of planning to pull it off well. Hell, I have a trilogy brewing in my head that's been researched and brainstormed now for the better part of 5 years.

      However, with things like mainstream fiction that don't require tons of research into technology or anything like that, you can write what you know, and hit the page running. The novel I am currently working on is like that...the whole thing spawned from a title. The title came from words spoken by an old cycling buddy. And within 2 minutes of him saying those words, the whole novel was formed in my head. Many of the places in the novel have only been visited once, some not at all. Anything can B.S.ed if you're a good enough writer.
      • While I agree with you that it's possible to produce a passable first draft - even novel length - on the fly, I do think that science fiction, and the whole time-travel sub-genre in particular, is a case where the author absolutely should be as meticulous as possible. This may be only because often times the plot hinges on minor subtle details, but also because bad/implausible/unsupported/stupid science can really destroy would might've been an interesting read. To switch media for a moment, the movie Event Horizon, for example, might have been an enjoyable horror story, except I was expecting science fiction, and the too-many-to-list cringe-inducing technical errors annoyed me enough that I didn't enjoy it at all.

        That said, assuming the reviewer was accurate (and I've no reason to doubt this), I would avoid the book based on that criteria, even though I generally love time travel stories - and I thank Bonker for posting it.

        For good time travel, pick up any of Jack Finney's 'time' stories, and of Poul Anderson's or Simon Hawke's time travel adventure yarns (the Hawke books are light on 'science', but fun to read), and especially Gregory Benford's _Timescape_ and David Gerrold's _The Man Who Folded Himself_
  • Do some research (Score:5, Informative)

    by Doug Loss ( 3517 ) on Friday September 13, 2002 @10:48AM (#4251082)
    I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on it, but the reviewer clearly didn't bother doing any fact checking. "The Morris-Thorne principle" is based on a paper by Michael Morris, Kip Thorne, and Ulvi Yurtsever which was published in the conservative and prestigious journal Physical Review Letters in 1988. For anyone interested in how this might relate to time travel, take a look at John Cramer's Alternate View [washington.edu] column for June 1989.
    • Regardless of whether the Morris-Thorne principle is real or not, the reviewers point is still valid. If you have a Morris-Thorne principle and go into the past at approx. the right time and introduce a character named Morris, the reader is probably going to assume that it is the same Morris. As an author you can pick any name. Why introduce a duplicate if it isn't necessary?
      • But that's so cliche, after all - morris is such a common name that it would be far more likely to meet someone in the past that had nothing to do with the principle. Kudos to the author for not following the set formula for doing time travel!!
    • Re:Do some research (Score:2, Informative)

      by jdkincad ( 576359 )
      For those interested the Morris, Thorne and Yurtsever paper is in the September 26, 1988 issue.
    • The reviewer writes:

      The author seems infinitely more interested in name-dropping other, more successful sci-fi authors and scientists. Steele has done his research on obscure historical persona, but he can't seem to fix the holes in his own story.

      And then:

      A good example in terms of broken plot is the fictional scientific principle the author uses to drive his time-travel ships. It's called the 'Morris-Thorne' principle in the story, obviously named after the scientists who discovered it.

      So to me it seems that the reviewer is saying that Steele has named the fictional principle after the real scientists. Albeit leaving out Yurtsever, as the Morris-Thorne-Yurtsever Principle doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

      So which fact was missed?

      Steve M

  • by Mad Man ( 166674 ) on Friday September 13, 2002 @10:55AM (#4251119)
    Indeed, the story starts out revolving around the central premise that the small percentage of UFO's sighted that can't be explained away as airplanes, comets, or blimps, are in actuality time-travelling ships from the future sent to investigate the past.

    There was a Herman comic strip -- oh, about 3 or 4 years ago -- where the characters are discussing UFOs. One of them says something like "I think they're time travellers from the future." When asked what they're doing, he answers "Buying up real estate."
    • Wasn't there an episode of the original Star Trek where the Enterprise accidentally got sent back to the 1960s and was mistaken for an alien spaceship?
      • Yes, but if I give you the name and episode number I will be confessing to things I don't want known.

      • Indeed there is. The Enterprise was on its way back to Earth when it had a near-miss with an undetected black hole while at warp speed. The accident caused the Enterprise to be thrown back in time, conveniently knocked everyone temporarily unconcious, so that the Enterprise wound up dropping down in Earth's atmosphere over the US, low enough so that a jet fighter could scramble up to their altitude and take some pictures. All that happened in the teaser before the credits.
  • I gotta wonder about the guys who pick up a book as crappy as this one seems to be and then keep reading and digesting it enough to be able to review it. I just don't have time to keep reading crap...much less review it. :)

    Did I spell masochistic right?

    • When I was reading it, I kept making the mistake of thinking... okay, this is a plot element. Surely this is going to resolve at the end. Right?

      (No, I didn't know about the *real* Morris-Thorne research, but imagine including a character named 'Einstein' in a book about relativity and then *not* having that character be in some way responsible for the plot device.)

      By the last fifty pages of the book, it was like watching a train wreck. I wanted to put it down, but I couldn't. I had some vague ray of hope that it would turn out well. Just like aforementioned trainwreck, there's always the hope that the train will right itself before it derails completely. In this case, the train didn't just derail, it slid off the tracks and rolled across the station.

  • creating an alternate universe in which the days of the week correspond to the dates in that matter...besides, the day of the week a given date falls on is not part of the unique identifier for that period of time.
  • Talk about a dose of humble pie...

    My mom always said "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

    I hate it when my mom is right.
    • Well, maybe your mom was right. But reviews aren't "mean" in the spontaneous emotional sense. They're (supposed to be) a somewhat dispassionate dicourse on the material/event.

      On that note, I always love reading negative reviews. I like them because you don't learn anything from good reviews. Good reviews are usually quick to gloss things over and give the reader this "just trust me *nudge* *wink*" kind of impression. Negative reviews are treasure trove of detailed expectations and how the subject missed meeting those expectations. If you're an artist/content developer, there is so much to be learned from negative reviews about how to do things right.

      Of course, all of this describes a good review written by a good reviewer. Now, who's going to review the reviewers? :+)
  • in Michael Crighton's "Sphere"
  • it initially looked like an interesting time-travel thriller-- something we've seen many of, but not a story that gets old due to its variations.

    You didn't write scripts for ST:Voyager, by any chance?


  • by sgage ( 109086 ) on Friday September 13, 2002 @11:18AM (#4251237)
    "looked like an interesting time-travel thriller-- something we've seen many of, but not a story that gets old due to its variations"

    How can time-travel get old? :-)
  • Pastwatch (Score:2, Informative)

    by ckotchey ( 184135 )
    A VERY good book along a similar plot-line is Orson Scott Card's "Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus", in which future observers watch events in the past, and eventually come to the conclusion that their own miserable future all stemmed from the events of Columbus discovering America, and their subsequent attempt to go into the past and alter it for a better future.
    It's a very good read.
  • Read Poul Anderson's books. Some are loosly knit together, some stand alone. All are worth a read. Actually, most Poul Anderson books are worth a read :-)
  • Must be a slow day for nerd news or something. On the other hand it's nice to see an extremely negative review of a book -- most /. reviews are glowingly positive ones.
  • by DavidBrown ( 177261 ) on Friday September 13, 2002 @11:47AM (#4251436) Journal
    "Indeed, the story starts out revolving around the central premise that the small percentage of UFO's sighted that can't be explained away as airplanes, comets, or blimps, are in actuality time-travelling ships from the future sent to investigate the past."

    Repo Man, 1984.
  • by Rocky ( 56404 )
    ...I thought the name of the next game was supposed to be "Chrono Break"?

  • This link gives a highlevel but nice intro to timetravel and how it might be possible or not.

    http://www.biols.susx.ac.uk/home/John_Gribbin/ti me trav.htm
  • by eaeolian ( 560708 ) on Friday September 13, 2002 @12:08PM (#4251585)
    I've read most of Steele's output, and I have to say, he's very uneven. His first couple of books were lighthearted stories in the mode of early Heinlien (especially the "future history" books), and were quite enjoyable reads. In fact, his best stuff seems to be in this mode, as the last good one, "A King of Infinite Space", was in much the same vein. He seems to have problems handling higher levels of complexity, however, and the name-dropping and quoting can get old after a while. This review, and the synopsis I've read, make me really want to take a pass on this one.

    On another note, having doen CD reviews for many years now, I like to see negative reviews of this type - pointing out the actual problems, rather than just saying "this sucks". I think with the growing amount of media contesting for our attention out there, a negative review can help people decide NOT to read/buy/listen to something, therefore not wasting their time, and generating feedback to the work's creator.

  • Let's assume the book is truly as ill-plotted, badly written and poorly presented as the reviewer says. Then consider that the manuscript was still accepted by a publisher and further, made it into book form.

    I reckon to those of us who have a half-decent plot idea but not the skill to build a storyscape around it could be in with a chance.

    If it was truly that bad I'm sure some of the extremely short stories that I write then delete as rubbish from my hard disk would have made it past a publisher. In fact anything with a good plot idea and nothing else should suffice.

    Now where did I leave that data recovery software?
  • I think Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movies said it best when trying to explain time travel:

    "I suggest you don't worry about this sort of thing and just enjoy yourself. That goes for you all, too."
  • You can purchase a worthwhile book at bn.com, but I'm not even going to bother looking the ISBN up for you. Slashdot welcomes reviews, but please try to review only good books so people will buy them through our sponser's links and we can get more keg-cash.


    The sloshdot team


  • I enjoyed it. I was surprised at how negative the review was... it is entertainment, not science. I didn't take it too seriously and I enjoyed the book.

    Lately I've been reading some heinlein I missed when I went thru the obligatory hienlein phase in high school. Of course, some of what I'm reading was written in the 50s, and the science is just plain wrong. OK, fine. The science isn't that critical for a story-- and I'm someone who hates stories where the science is wrong. But you can't expect someone to predict science accurately 50 years into the future and then be unhappy when they are wrong. you have to suspend some disbelief.

    IF you went into a time travel story without suspending disbelief, no wonder you were unhappy! By its nature, time travel stories are always going to be incorrect

    Anyway, I'm not saying this is a golden book. The ending wasn't the greatest, but it was entertaining and thus, worth my time reading it.

    Best book by steele (I think it was steele, it was a long time ago) is Kaleidascope Century. Really good book.

    Chronospace is a good weekend read when you want to get away from reality for awhile.

  • by doonesbury ( 69634 ) on Friday September 13, 2002 @02:09PM (#4252422) Homepage
    Whew. That was a pretty harsh rip.

    I will say this; I was disappointed with this book when I read it. I've read most of Steele's other work, and this was not one of his best. But it definitely wasn't quite that bad. It had some interesting premises in it: and it didn't quite come through.

    Having said that, I will say that this book is not reminiscent of his best work, by far. When he's off, he's off -- but when he's on, he's stellar.

    If you're looking for his best work, check out Steele's short story work, Sex and Violence in Zero G, Rude Astronauts and All-American Alien Boy. The short stories in those books by far outstrip this book, and build an amazingly neat background for his "Near Space" series. Orbital Decay and Lunar Descent are great; I personally like The Jericho Iteration, because he writes about some of my old stomping grounds in St. Louis.

    Also, check out the short story he was just put up for: Stealing Alabama. Very neat premise.
  • Let's just pass over the comment that this particular idea hasn't been used to death and introduce you to the movie Millenium [centerstage.net] in which Humans from the future travel back in time and harvest people who history records as having died in airline crashes into the future... It bares a passing resemblance to Freejack [barnesandnoble.com] starring Emilo and our ever lovable Sting. No UFOs in the latter movie, however. No, this idea hasn't been trodden, beat, raped and otherwise set aflame now, has it?

I've got a bad feeling about this.