Tuesday, 30 October 2001

Vernor Vinge: Across Realtime (1984/1986)

Edition: Millennium, 2000
Review number: 982

Although presented in this edition as a single entity, Across Realtime is really two novels, as it was originally published: The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime.

Te concept which fuels the plot of the two novels is is an impenetrable sphere of force, perfectly reflective and frictionless, which encloses whatever is within it in a fixed instant of time until the bobble bursts. Not much is said about the physics of these objects, which are basically unexplained plot devices in a traditional science fiction manner. My feeling is that they are impossible, since quantum tunnelling would allow particles to pass through the skin, and this would force a thermodynamic connection between the inside and outside, making time pass.

In the first novel, which has the excellent title The Peace War, the bobbles have been used by the Peace Authority to set up a world wide dictatorship (just bobble any opposition). The plot is about the fight to overturn them, led by the man who invented the bobble and a young boy, his genius apprentice.

The second novel, Marooned in Realtime, is set millions of years later. It is a more successful story than The Peace War, which takes quite a long time to get going. It is a murder investigation, and it has three mysteries at its heart. Wil Brierson is a policeman from the late twenty first century, who was effectively murdered - separated from his family and friends by being bobbled for thousands of years by a fugitive suspect. This crime was punished by the courts by bobbling the perpetrator for the same length of time, and placing this bobble and an account of the crime next to that of the victim so that he could prepare his own vengeance after his release.

This wouldn't be much of a mystery except for the central fact of the novel. The long term bobbled have found themselves in a world with no humans, and a variety of untestable theories are put forward for the disappearance - alien invasion, the second coming, a universal transcendence to some higher level of being. Marta and Yelen, among the last survivors to leave civilisation (and therefore among the most technologically advanced), decide that the only hope for human survival is for all the remaining people to band together, and as part of this they rescue Wil's assailant and give him a new identity.

The third investigation, which is the principal one in terms of the crime plot, is into murder committed with an opposite method to the attack on Wil. To gather as many recruits as possible, Marta's growing community bobbles itself through thousands of years until other bobbles break; but now an enemy hacks her computer system so that she is left outside the bobble, alone on the planet until the end of her natural lifespan away from medical technology.

Wil's investigation into this makes the novel a fascinating mystery, with an interesting background among the animals evolved since the disappearance. Marooned in Realtime is easily the better of the two stories, and The Peace War is really more like an explanation of its background than something similar to it in stature. Both, however, are of interest; Marooned in Realtime is one of the best pieces of eighties science fiction.

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