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Plato's Labyrinth (SF) - Michael Carroll ***

This is an interesting contribution to Springer's innovative 'Science and Fiction' series, which includes both SF novels and non-fiction books about science and science fiction. It is Michael Carroll's fourth contribution to the series that I've read, preceded by On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea, Europa's Lost Expedition and Lords of the Ice Moons. As with its predecessors, there is an interesting 'now the science part' at the end, covering wide ranging topics - in this case from quantum physics to palaeontology.

Carroll has improved on the previous book - each novel seems to step up a notch from the last. By far the biggest advantage this title has is in moving the setting to Earth - Carroll's writing works better here than in hypothetical outer planet moonscapes. In fact, the first part of the book works so well I was entirely ready to give it four or five stars, but there were a couple of issues as I continued to read that dragged it back down. 

At the heart of Plato's Labyrinth is time travel. We witness the first, tentative trips into the past and the battle between two rival groups developing the technology (one team decidedly shady). I absolutely loved the way that Carroll tied in an early trip to the work of the Victorian artist and sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the man behind the Crystal Palace dinosaur sculptures in London and a set of sadly wrecked equivalents in New York. If Carroll had remained focused on this strand of the plot Plato's Labyrinth could have been a superb novel (though it would have needed a different title).

Where things go a little astray is the sheer number of other plot elements that get piled in. So we've also got a quantum theory many worlds interpretation twist to the tale, a significant Ancient Greek Minoan strand, a pantomime villain who want to import Roman legionnaires to the present day in order to... well, I'm not really sure why. Throw in the mental disintegration of one character, a love story and an incompetent comedy private eye and there's just far too much going on - reflected in the fact that the book feels very long at 367 pages. It loses impetus about half way through.

Inevitably with fictional time travel technology close scrutiny uncovers issues. So, for instance, for no obvious reason, all non-living matter transported through time starts to disintegrate on arrival. Except the devices they use to recall the time machines don't disintegrate. On the plus side, Carroll has great fun devising a living organic equivalent of a camera. He also uses Ron Mallett's real life concept of a frame dragging spiral of light as the time travel mechanism - a neat touch, though in reality even if Mallett's idea works (many physicists doubt it), it couldn't deliver the results described here. However, it's a better-than-usual attempt at suspension of disbelief on the mechanisms of time travel.

I enjoyed reading this book, but an editor with experience of fiction should have ensured that Carroll focused more, pruning those messy plot lines and producing the outstanding novel that was promised by the opening chapters. Even so, definitely Carroll's best.

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