Vernor Vinge
Across Realtime (1986)
Reviewed: 2002-05-30

Omnibus edition of:

  1. The Peace War (1984)
  2. Marooned in Realtime (1986)

The overarching idea of this pair of novels is the bobble, Vinge's version of the stasis field, popularized in Larry Niven's Known Space stories and assorted other fiction. Once projected, it completely separates its contents from the rest of the universe and vice versa until the bobble bursts. Its outside appearance is that of a perfectly reflective, perfectly shaped sphere. Inside a bobble, no time passes. It can be used as an offensive or defensive weapon, a prison or a shield, or as a one-way time machine into the future.

The inventors of the bobble generator quickly realized what they had in hand. They formed the Peace Authority and took control of the world. There was a war, the old governments fought with nukes, and there were plagues of uncertain origin. The Peace Authority prevailed and destroyed the old nations. It imposed a ban on high-density energy sources, powered vehicles, bioscience, and bobble research.

The Peace War is set fifty years later in this fateful future. Western North America (and presumably the rest of the world) is fragmented into several states, ungoverned regions, and areas that have lapsed into feudalism. The Authority rules supreme and continues to enforce the Peace and the Ban. It is a strangely incongruous world. High-tech electronics have not been banned and the Tinkers have made enormous progress, side by side with horse-driven carts. An underground resistence against the Authority has formed. A brilliant old Tinker takes on an apprentice, a genius boy, who will become a central figure in the time to come. Slowly the world is heading for an explosive change when unexpectedly a bobble around an old USAF reconnaissance craft bursts and one of the crew escapes. This event turns into the starting point for a revolutionary struggle to break the bobble monopoly and power of the Authority.

Although the basic concept is fascinating enough, I found neither the story nor the characters exciting. People home to the American West Coast will probably be pained by Vinge's vision of that region's decline. Altogether, this is a rather unremarkable novel.

Where The Peace War was mediocre, Marooned in Realtime is breathtaking. It showcases the applications emerging from mature bobble technology, where bobbles of almost arbitray size and duration can be cast with utmost precision and little effort. Ever since the initial invention, some people have (or have been) bobbled up for many years. For some it was an emergency measure to save them from an otherwise fatal accident. Others were victims of a crime, or perpetraters punished likewise. Some intended to skip a few decades or centuries to return to a better world.

However, at some time in the 23rd century, humanity just disappeared. Those whose bobbles burst later dropped into a world of ruins and devoid of people. Many perished. Those with the requisite gear bobbled forward in time, hoping for civilization to re-emerge, only to be disappointed. A handful of late journeyers from shortly before the disappearance had brought along powerful equipment that allowed them to observe the world, to save less fortunate time travelers, and to communicate with each other during their trips through the millennia. Fifty million years down the road, the lone remnants of humanity meet to consider the prospect of restarting civilization. Tensions are high between the all powerful high-techs and the low-techs, among historic factions and individual zealots.

When an unconceivable murder happens, Wil Brierson is called upon. Once a famous cop he is now a low-tech who was shanghaied into the future and is still trying to cope with the destruction of his world and family. Together with a high-tech partner it is up to him to solve the crime, and as the mystery unravels it becomes clear that beyond the single life already shed the survival of this last human colony is at stake.

Marooned in Realtime is lightly linked to the predecessor novel by a few characters that make appearances in both, but calling it a sequel would be a stretch. Vinge's writing is unspectacular. He deftly manages to incorporate the advanced capabilities of the high-techs into the story without slipping into techno-babble or magical plot resolutions.

Forget the detective story. It is written competently enough, although a bit convoluted towards the end. Forget the characters. This novel is about the big picture. Time travel into the deep future. Vistas on the geological timescale. Short spans measured in millennia, serious periods in megayears. Vinge does a lot with the idea of skipping time in a bobble, impervious to the outside, flickering back into realtime in intervals from milliseconds to decades. In the background there is the mystery of what happened to humanity. Was it exterminated by alien invaders? Did it self-destruct in war? Or did it, for lack of better words, evolve away?

This is the first novel where Vinge introduces the notion of the Singularity, a point in time where the rate of progress has become so fast that from our present perspective we will be unable to comprehend what will happen, much like a flatworm does not understand human endeavors. An idea that looks eminently applicable to the real world, outside of all fiction.

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