Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"The Light of Other Days" - Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter (2000)

Just finished "The Light of Other Days" by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, first published in April 2000. Here's the review at The SF Site by Steven H. Silver.
"The Light of Other Days" was the title of a classic short story by Bob Shaw, one of the lesser known stars of science fiction. One of science fiction's biggest stars, Arthur C. Clarke, and one of its rising talents, Stephen Baxter, have combined forces to pay tribute to Shaw with their collaborative novel of the same title. One of the features of the Shaw story was the idea of "slow glass," which would transmit light so slowly that it could be used to view the past. The comparative device in the Clarke & Baxter novel is wormhole technology.

"Hiram Patterson, a latter-day Ted Turner/Bill Gates, has found a use for wormholes to broadcast news as it happens from remote locations without the time and expense of transporting a live reporter and camera crew.

"He can create a temporary wormhole, point a camera through it, and capture the images from a home office, no matter where it is located. Patterson's development team, headed by his son, David, continues to push the boundaries of this new technology while Clarke and Baxter begin to examine its social aspects.

"The spread of wormhole technology seems to be based on the internet. Like the internet, it spreads rapidly and reasonably inexpensively. There can be no interaction between the viewer and the subject of their spying. Most importantly, it completely alters the fabric of society and brings the world even closer together.

"The changes to society are continuous, especially since what can be done with wormhole technology and its cost keeps changing. Used to spy on individuals, particularly once the ability to look into the past is discovered, wormhole technology supplants the internet as the primary time-waster.

"People can now not only discover what their neighbours are doing at the moment, they can also see what their neighbours were doing at any time. Privacy has ceased to exist as anyone can spy on anyone else, at any time, without any chance of detection.

"Although there are some noble endeavours, such as the project to completely document the life of the historical Jesus, most people use the technology for more voyeuristic concerns. Given the attitude Clarke exhibited towards organized religion in such recent novels as 3001: The Final Odyssey, the irreverence paid to religion in The Light of Other Days is very understated.

"The Light of Other Days is definitely a novel of ideas. In addition to the primary concept of the wormhole, the story opens with the announcement of the discovery of an enormous asteroid, called the Wormwood, which will impact the earth in 2534, causing the destruction of all life on the planet. The knowledge of the Wormwood inflicts much of humanity with a sense of malaise, adding to the public's need for a diversion like wormhole technology. The authors have also inflicted water shortages on the world which have resulted in several water wars. Many countries have become balkanized and, perhaps the least likely situation, England has become the 52nd state of the US.

"With many interesting ideas, few of which are fully explored, and a dearth of exploration of the characters and their relationships, The Light of Other Days feels more like a work in progress than a finished novel. If the authors wanted to pay homage to Bob Shaw, producing a more complete work may have been the way to do it."
This review is spot on as regards the style of the novel: it reads to me like a very late pulp novel of the nineteen fifties and sixties - the golden age of Heinlein, Asimov and, of course, Clarke. Though by content I suspect Baxter did most of the writing - Clarke's main contribution seems to have been the overarching plot, a reprise of "Childhood's End".

Looking back fourteen years, the novel is remarkably prescient in technological terms. In the novel the dominant global corporation is called OurWorld (a version of Google) with a megalomaniac CEO called Hiram Patterson (father of main characters Bobby Patterson and David Curzon). The characters travel around in automated driverless cars and are surrounded by flying servitor-drones (the novel is set some decades in our present future).

There are some stunning set-pieces, such as where David Curzon programs the "wormcam" to follow his female ancestors back through time (via a 'mitochondrial DNA tracker') - the reader is taken on a dizzying ride across 4.5 billion years.

As with all pulp novels, dazzling sense of awe and wonder has to be set against pedestrian and unconvincing characterisation. One really has to struggle to believe the interpersonal dynamics - particularly the love interest between journalist Kate Manzoni and Bobby Patterson (Hiram Patterson's cloned son and heir apparent).

Quantum wormholes have recently become all the rage too, now linked by some researchers to quantum entanglement in theories of quantum gravity. I was not so impressed with the authors' model of our own physical reality as exhibiting a unique present: a boundary between a frozen block-universe past and a quantum-uncertain and mutable future. We already know that can't be right as our universe does not have a unique observer-independent present . Dr Baxter, of course, knows this consequence of special relativity.

So if you like SF from the golden age you'll enjoy this, but you are likely to share David Curzon's qualms as regards humanity's final fate.

Wikipedia entry for "The Light of Other Days"