Reviewed: Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime.

Marooned in Realtime cover

Like Vernor Vinge‘s other novels, Marooned in Realtime is full of big ideas painted on a big canvas. A summary of the novel’s premise should suffice to evince this: take 300 humans — time travelers, of a sort, who missed the disappearance of humanity in the 2210s. Put them in the year 55 million A.D. (Time travelers, it turns out, have good reason for finding it difficult deciding on a meeting place). Add an ambitious plan to repopulate the world, and threaten it by fractious divisions within the community of survivors, some of whom prefer to keep on traveling through time to the end of the Universe, and some of whom fear that whatever disaster (if disaster it were!) that befell humanity in the 21st century will repeat itself as soon as humanity settles down. Finally, for good measure, throw in a murder mystery.

That’s the setting and plot at the outset. I won’t say more; as is usual with Vinge, it is a joy to work out the novel’s backstory and technological premises. Readers familiar with The Peace War, to which Marooned in Realtime is a sequel, will be a step ahead in this endeavor, but those of us (myself included) who haven’t bothered to read The Peace War should have no fear: Marooned in Realtime is a work that works perfectly as a stand alone novel. The scattered references to events presumably occurring in The Peace War only serve to add depth to Marooned in Realtime‘s backstory.

The characters are real. There are no Gary Stus, thankfully, though obversly Vinge isn’t above caricaturing those he disagrees with. We’ll come to that momentarily.

As a mystery novel, Marooned in Realtime is nothing special. Fortunately, it’s a fine science fiction novel. Vinge’s interest in technological development was apparent in the fine novels of his more recent Zone of Thought series, but in Marooned in Realtime it takes center stage. In mediating on the causes and consequences of technological advancement, Vinge embraced the notion of a technological Singularity, a “place where extrapolation breaks down and now models must be applied. And those new models are beyond our intelligence.” In practical terms, the Singularity Vinge envisions is the point at which superhuman intelligence is achieved (via computers) and technological development, freed from its human constraints, proceeds at an exponential rate. The fraction of the community of survivors rests on the very idea that even a few years can mean a vast difference in technological capabilities in a post-singularity world. For example, one pair of characters, relying on 2200’s state of the art technology are able to manufacture two kilograms of antimatter a day. Another character, employing 2210’s methods, was able to manufactured 100,000 tons of antimatter a second. This notion of exponential technological growth provides a basis for both important plot points and the novel’s intellectual appeal. As it happened, Vinge’s concept of the singularity enriched more than Marooned in Realtime – it revolutionized all science fiction and has even made its way into scientific discourse.

In a later novel, one of Vinge’s characters explicitly singles out the Singularity, which never happened in that storyline, as one of the conceits of an overly optimistic humanity. This doesn’t parallel Vinge’s own views – as far as I know, he believes in the Singularity now as ever – but it does suggest that Vinge has an open mind. Unfortunately, his open mind leads to some rather rigid positions in Marooned with Realtime. Vinge’s libertarianism isn’t a secret, and it’s apparent, if subtly, in other works. In this novel it comes out in some very bizarre ways. In Vinge’s mind, coercion, however necessary, is synonymous with the state, and the state is synonymous with Nazi Germany. Hence one character, possessing the libertarian virtues of the rest but realizing he is now in the employ of a “government,” sardonically thinks to himself, “Sieg Heil.” As far as libertarian economics go, Vinge constructs his usual little literary dioramas to demonstrate the virtue of markets, but never demonstrates their operation in anything other than closed systems. This isn’t an Ayn Rand or Terry Goodkind novel: there’s shitty politics handled without especial finesse, but they’re not the book’s raison d’etre. They just happen to be there. Fortunately, where they get in the way, the strong characters and plot steamroll them.

There you have it, the good and the bad. To summarize, I’d say that Marooned in Realtime is a taut, thoughtful, and even emotionally challenging tale well worth the few nights you’ll spend reading it. It is available now and has been since 1985.

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