Sunday, July 19, 2009

Guest Review of Marooned in Realtime

Vernor Vinge, in the days before he became a three-times-running Hugo award winning author, was merely a two-times-running Hugo nominated author. Last year I reviewed the first of those two novels, The Peace War. The second novel, Marooned in Realtime, is a sequel to Peace in the sense that it takes place in the same universe and timeline, but you have to think rather broadly to call it a sequel given the fifty million years that pass between the two books. Then again...

Mysteries are inherent to the lives of many living in the small community around Korolev Castle. The Rag-Tag Town is a collection of a few hundred survivors that represent the last dribs and drabs of humanity. Why this might be, nobody knows; whatever caused the rest of the human race to disappear happened while the survivors were trapped in bobbles, a sufficiently advanced technology that removes a chunk of the universe from reality by wrapping it in an impenetrable sphere. No time passes within bobbles though, and eventually bobbles burst to release their contents back into the normal frame of spacetime exactly as they were when the bobble was created.

Beyond the great mystery of what happened to billions of people on Earth and spread throughout the Solar system, many of the town's residents have much more personal mysteries. Some have no idea where-or when-their neighbors come from. Even many of those who do know are not sharing their knowledge since most of them are the high-techs, a group of people who were bobbled very close to the disappearance and have the highest levels of technology and power-and therefore intrigue-in the community. Wil Brierson, former detective, has an extra mystery: he doesn't know who bobbled him fifty million years ago, taking him away from his life and family in the 22nd century and throwing him into an unimaginably distant future.

Unfortunately, not all of the mysteries are quite that old. Yelén Korolev, the woman who has been gathering together the last remnants of humanity over the course of millions of years, has been killed. The murder weapon: old age. The computers controlling the town's bobblers were hacked to initiate a hundred year bobble while Korolev was stranded outside in realtime, leaving her to live out the next forty years as the only person on the planet before she finally succumbed. Now Brierson has to start unraveling some of the secrets surrounding the last members of the human race to figure out who killed her before the fight to fill the power vacuum left by her death destroys them all.



In my review of The Peace War I said that it felt like a throwback sort of novel, more like a Golden Age sci-fi book than one that was written in the 1980s. Marooned in Realtime had a similar feel, but for a completely different reason. While The Peace War had a similar structure to many of the stories that came out of that age, Marooned in Realtime reminded me very specifically of Issac Asimov's Robot mysteries. Beyond the stylistic similarities that it shares with Peace, Marooned seems to draw on many of the same character archetypes that Asimov used in books like The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. In particular, Brierson and his de facto partner Della Lu map nicely onto Lije Bailey and R. Daneel, so it was very easy for me to think of Marooned in those terms.

All of these similarities make it difficult for me to judge Marooned objectively. The Robot novels are basically what I learned to read by and have remained some of my favorite science fiction books ever since (despite Asimov's early flaws as a storyteller, which I certainly acknowledge). So reading Marooned put me back in my happy-fuzzy-little-kid place, and it would be almost impossible for me to have not liked it because of that.

That being said, Vinge was a better storyteller at the time he wrote Marooned than Asimov was at the time he wrote Caves. Brierson and Lu are much more human than Bailey and Daneel (and not just for the obvious reason), and the supporting cast Vinge created are certainly crafted with more subtlety than what Asimov wrote. Even more impressive, though, is that Vinge - at the late date of 1986 - manages to create a world that is as far outside the experience of many modern sci-fi readers as Asmiov's was to his readers in the 1950's. While hard sci-fi has thoroughly explored the social and technological implications of space travel, it has not gone nearly as far in looking at travel across great gaps of time, and most of those books still get caught up in playing with the rules of causality or the implications of MWI. The bobbler gives Vinge an opportunity to look at time travel in a very intuitive way: by making it into something that isn't really time travel. The universe continues on as normal, it's just that certain parts of it drop out for a while and then reappear. It is an entirely linear one-way process that is simple to understand, and because of this Vinge can focus on what is really going on when humans live out their lives on a geological time scale.

The RTT is also rendered very well, and it provides a very clear picture of Vinge's technological singularity concept. (Of course, it seems a little odd that the point of the singularity is that we cannot predict what the other side will look like and this book takes place entirely on the other side of it, but the disappearance of most of humanity neatly sidesteps this issue.) There are enough elements carried forward from Peace that Marooned can be rightly called a sequel, but the circumstances of the RTT are so different from the world of Peace that it feels like of bit of a cheat to connect them in that way. Peace's world was interesting; Marooned's town is unique. Vinge did flavor Marooned with a bit more of his math and computer science background than appeared in Peace, but being the geek that I am, that didn't exactly hurt it in my view.

Marooned in Realtime lacks the tremendous depth and scope of Vinge's later works, but the fascinating ideas behind many of his recent books are present in full force. Despite the distance between them The Peace War should still be read before Marooned due to spoilers, but ultimately, both should be read and enjoyed.

8/10

4 comments:

Harry Markov: daydream said...

Oh, I am so hooked on this one. Right about now I am in my zealous mood to start virtually anything and this sounds awesome. I like the parallels you draw and throw some light on a similar work and genre author. I am not as well versed in classics of any genre so I find it quite helpful.

orannia said...

OK, the bobbles sounds very cool :) I don't think I have the space to pick up a new author right now, but I will have to keep Vinge in mind.

Thank you Kristen!

Kristen said...

Harry - I haven't read this one yet (or anything by Vinge, for that matter, although his A Deepness in the Sky is on my list of hard sci fi to try) but it does sound interesting. John did get me to read the Asimov Robot mysteries he mentioned and I enjoyed those once I got past the first one. After reading that one, I didn't really feel compelled to read the next one, but once I did, I tore through it.

Orannia - Thanks, but I didn't write that review - that was one of John's. I haven't even read that book yet! The bobbles do sound cool, though, and I need to read Vinge at some point too.

Harry Markov: daydream said...

I am behind on my sci-fi reading. I aim to get the material ahead with the fantasy list, so barely any time left for me to explore this genre. Asimov is on my list, mainly because his name is legendary and I have no clue what he has written...