Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I've previously bemoaned the dearth of Vernor Vinge titles in my library.  I was recently complaining about this to a co-worker, who was kind enough to give me a little reality check, pointing out that I could buy a perfectly good used copy in, say, Borderlands for $10 or less, then sell it back when I was done reading, for a whopping total of a couple of bucks.  It's true: my thrifty instincts often blind me to the reality that we live in a world where one can purchase goods with money.

He took pity on me, and lent me two Vinge titles from his own library.  I first tackled the shorter of the two, Marooned in Realtime.  After I got several chapters into it, I realized that it was a sequel to the short story "The Ungoverned," which I had just recently finished when reading through Vinge's collected works.  I also learned that a Vinge sequel is very different from the sort of sequels one might usually expect.


Namely, how many sequels start fifty million years after the previous story?

Marooned in Realtime is a really fascinating work.  The key technological gimmick is something called a "Bobble."  A Bobble is essentially a stasis field.  When a bobble is activated, everything within its radius freezes in time, while outside, time progresses as usual.  So, to someone inside the bobble, it will feel as though an instant has passed, while on the outside, anywhere from several minutes to a megayear may have passed. 

This allows for one-way time travel: you can bobble into the future, but not return to the past.  That leads to some really cool and exciting story options.  Traveling is always a risk, since you always leap forward into the unknown, and can never travel back into the past.  There's a huge social element, since you're leaving behind those you didn't bobble with. 

I like bobbling for a lot of reasons, but high on my list is that it feels like hard sci-fi.  He never goes into the details of exactly how bobbling is supposed to work, but it does seem at least theoretically possible, based on what we know today about space and time.  Einstein has shown that time is relative, not a constant, and so it is possible for two people to age at different rates; you could get an effect similar to bobbling by sending someone on a very fast space ship (which also happens within this book).  And, by restricting himself to one-way time-travel, Vinge neatly avoids the entire temporal paradox problem; you can't keep your parents from meeting one another.  It's very much an example of building a story around the world, instead of twisting the world to fit your story.

While bobbling is the main feature, it isn't the only technological advance.  Actually, the timeline is kind of funny - Vinge wrote this book in the 80's, and anticipated a rapid approach towards the Singularity within our lifetime, so to break up the flow a little he invented a massive biological warfare catastrophe to take place in 1997 which wiped out the majority of mankind.  Still, the survivors recovered enough in the next 100 years to create the Longevity Breakthrough, which allows humans (with the proper medical equipment) to remain practically immortal, and even reverse aging and redesign their bodies.  Again, while we certainly can't do this now, it does seem to be theoretically possible once our science has advanced far enough.  He also foresees something like today's always-connected, always-on Internet: the "low techs" have trouble using it, but more advanced travelers can tap in to the collective knowledge of all mankind and personal records at any time and from any place that they want.  The only difference is that they use visors instead of mobile phones to do it.

What else... there are Autons, personal floating robots who observe and protect particular charges.  And "clean" nuclear bombs, which are used as propulsion devices instead of weapons.  And lots of other, smaller things.

The technology is the most interesting part of the story, but the characters are good as well.  The main character, W W Brierson, returns from The Ungoverned in a somewhat familiar role.  There he was a protector, using his wits to affect the outcome of a pending war; here he is a detective, tracking down the perpetrator of a crime.  It's a different kind of intelligence, and makes for a great device on which to build the story.

There's a surprisingly large, varied, and rich cast of supporting characters, most of whom are also suspects in Brierson's investigation.  They are roughly divided into low-techs, who bobbled out in the 21st century, and high-techs, who bobbled out in the 22nd century.  Shortly after the last high-techs left, SOMETHING happened that eliminated the entire human race from Planet Earth and her colonies.  Each of the high-techs have their own theory about what happened.  Some think it was an alien invasion; others believe it was the Second Coming of Christ; others think it was a violent self-destruction; others think that the Singularity occurred, and all mankind transcended the planet.  The characters aren't just those theories, though.  With such a large cast Vinge can't devote too much time to any one person, but he does manage to provide an appropriate stamp of personality on every person, making them shy, or imperious, or cold, or fanatical, or conflicted. 

Vinge keeps the theme from The Ungoverned going here.  The old Planet Earth had largely evolved beyond governments, settling into a system of private contracts and self-selected affinity groups.  However, in the post-Singularity future, about one-third of the surviving people follow the Republic of New Mexico, while another third represents the Peace Authority.  A subplot of the book deals with the struggle for power between these groups, while the remaining unaligned people watch with a fair amount of bemusement. 

Even though Brierson gets the most space by far, I actually thought he was the weakest character.  He's interesting, but not really very consistent.  Vinge writes about how he's popular and everyone likes him, but we never see that; other than two Indian brothers, we never really see anyone who seems to like him or treat him with respect.  Similarly, he goes through nearly the whole novel as the cool, self-controlled detective, but he loses control and goes a bit nuts at two points in the story.  Vinge tries to work this in to his description of Brierson, but I found it hard to buy.  Rather than make him into a more complex and interesting character, it just feels really jarring and inauthentic.

That said, it IS a great story.  The mystery format works wonderfully, giving Vinge tons of time to lay out his ideas while still allowing us to feel like the whodunit is progressing.  It ends on a very satisfying, almost comically cliche note, with all the suspects gathered in one room for the denouncement by the detective.

Now, for the "What This Reminded Me Of" run-down:

The book I found myself most often thinking of was "The Door Into Summer" by Robert Heinlein.  This is mainly because both books feature one-way time-travel, which people undertake for similar reasons.  TDiS time-travel is done by cryogenics, and only affects a single person rather than a field, but it's really the same ideas.  That said, TDiS is incredibly optimistic, with a very rosy view of the future.  Vinge is big-picture optimistic - he sees the march towards the Singularity as inevitable and exciting - but in the short run, the people who bobbled out of his world encountered a future far worse than that in Heinlein.

There are also a few similarities with Hyperion, mainly in the way they acknowledge both relative and absolute time.  In Marooned in Realtime, a character's life might span seventy million years, but he might only be aware for 200 of those.  A bobble of a thousand years might be trivial, while 100 years in realtime could be fatal.  In Hyperion, the same kind of schism is at play, although there it is tied more directly to relativity.  One person might live their entire life on one planet in seventy years.  Another person might be born at the same time, leave when they were 20, travel around the universe visiting other planets for 10 years, and then return to that planet; they will be aged 30, but someone with the same birth date might have turned 60.  That leads to awkward social skew.  That said, MiR's longevity breakthrough keeps that from being such an issue, as age differences can be smoothed out, and people live effectively endless lives.


Vinge stays sharp in this book, and I'm glad to see that Rainbow's End isn't the only good novel that he wrote.  It will be most attractive to people who want to play with Vinge's ideas, but it's also quite satisfying purely on the basis of its plot.  One of these days, I'll need to read about the Peacewar and find out how this saga began.

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