Time Future - Maxine McArthur
Random House, September 1999, pb, 480pp, $15.95. Cover by Gregory Bridges.
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan

It's easy to see why Maxine McArthur's impressive first novel, Time Future, won the 1999 George Turner Prize. A confident and assured debut, it is a locked-room drama very much in the mode of C.J. Cherryh's Union-Alliance novels.

Just as Cherryh keeps the focus tight and the pressure on in her novels set on Pell Station, so McArthur has kept the focus in Time Future tightly on Jocasta, an alien-built space station operated by Earth in its capacity as a junior member of the Confederacy of Allied Worlds. The station has been blockaded by aliens for six months, and as supplies run low and systems begin to fail, station commander Halley despairs of how she and her people are going to survive. On one hand, she has a group of aliens blockading her station who seem unwilling or unable to state what they want, but won't let anyone leave. On the other, she has deteriorating relations between the thirteen member races of the Confederacy on board the Jocasta, whose distrust of one another escalates the longer the blockade continues. Her situation is further complicated because, as a junior member of the Confederacy, Earth has no faster-than-light transport of its own, and is dependent on the enigmatic Invidi for supplies and communications between Earth and Jocasta.

The stalemate is broken when a comet enters the system, bringing with it the Cassandra, a damaged spacecraft bearing human crewmembers who have been cryogenically suspended for almost one hundred years, Halley's husband, an alien hunter who shows up unexpectedly with hostile intent, and a deadly alien menace (you knew there had to be one).

These elements combine in a heady mix that show McArthur has a good eye for character, a sure hand for plotting, and an easy familiarity with her materials. Setting her story in essentially one location, and telling it over a period of less than seventy-two hours, gives the book a dense, claustrophobic feel that suits her story well. It helps keep the reader and her characters off-balance till the end, and contributes to the feeling that McArthur has a good understanding of the genre and of the kind of story she is trying to tell.

As always in any first novel there are missteps and awkward moments. There is also a certain amount of derivativeness to the novel - McArthur is clearly familiar with the work of C.J. Cherryh and J. Michael Straczynski - but its the kind of thing that is readily forgivable in a first novel. Time Future makes for an impressive debut and it is to McArthur's credit that the least interesting thing about this engaging and credible space opera is that it won the Turner Prize.

©1999 Jonathan Strahan.
This review originally appeared in Locus.