A Sea of Time, by Rob Frisbee

a-sea-of-time-by-rob-frisbee coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Dark House Books
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by David Hart

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The year is 2004. An archaeological excavation in Turkey is digging up a skeleton 10,000 years old and discovers it to be wearing a modern necklace. Three days later radio telescopes receive an apparently alien signal, which is somehow also dumped on to the internet. Fortunately, deep beneath the Pentagon is Covenn, an organisation set up to investigate just such strange phenomena. In accordance with a pre-existing plan, it collects a team of five geniuses, each with a relevant specialty. The story relates how they work out what is happening, and take the necessary action.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is the author’s first, and it is self-published. The second thing to say: considering this, it is surprisingly good. The premise of the main plot is very reasonable (though not the two sub-plots) and keeps the pages turning, especially in the first half of the book. Frisbee writes well, though he makes each chapter rather too short for my taste, giving the story something of an episodic feel; and this is made worse by poor depiction of time-flow: the team would meet for a short discussion, and suddenly the whole day has passed. The structure and pacing of the story are good until near the end, when the main plot gives way to the more unlikely sub-plot.

Now the less good features. The plot is not quite watertight. One character writes the contingency plan, and coincidentally the same person helps dig up the skeleton. The radio signal arrives almost immediately, again coincidentally. These sorts of coincidences threaten my suspension of disbelief, and there’s worse. Implausibly advanced technology for the year 2004: 3-D holographical computer displays, supercomputers with AI, biological interfaces to computers. Implausibly secrecy: the radio signal is detected worldwide, and the data on the internet landed on most computers; yet both are somehow kept secret both from the public and from other governments. The internet data is also implausibly difficult to decipher; any computer programmer would have caught on much faster.

Next the science, of which there’s a lot: the Anthropic principle, string theory, GUTs, tachyons, genetic modification, dolphin intelligence…. It gives a kitchen-sink impression, as if Frisbee is saying “Hey this is Science Fiction, let’s have some science”. Unfortunately not all of the science is accurate: metal is subjected to carbon dating, statements about genetic modifications are nonsense, and one medical bit is plain wrong. These are subjects that I know enough about to spot the mistakes, which doesn’t bode well for the rest. In SF an author is allowed to take known science and extend or extrapolate it; but just one science at a time, and extend rather than distort. Frisbee also makes the mistake of sometimes using footnotes to educate the reader, rather than explaining a meaning subtly by dialogue. Perhaps he realized that this is not good practice, and indicated this by ironically providing a footnote to explain the meaning of Geiger counter. Or perhaps not.

Characterization is good and bad. The main protagonists are each given a trait, and that part of them is well drawn. However that particular attribute is all they seem to possess, and they never step outside of it. As a result they don’t come across as complete, well rounded, believable people. The interactions between the characters don’t always ring true either. Worse is the way they interact with the plot. Someone offers a tentative possibility, and suddenly it becomes received truth. Several times someone makes an important discovery, and says “I’ll tell everybody about it tomorrow”.

So there are various bad points, but nothing fatal. Better research, fewer McGuffins, broader characterization would all have improved the book, but even as written it reads well, keeps up the tension, and is enjoyable over all. It is easily the best self-published book that I’ve read to date.

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