|New York: Tor Books; 2000; $24.95 hc; 316 pages. Another Dave Langford review.|
A joint venture by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter was definitely something to look forward to. At last the grand old man has found a collaborator of considerable existing stature, who (with perhaps some reservations in the areas of mysticism and transcendence) is highly sympathetic to the Clarke world-view. Indeed, from time to time Baxter seems eerily able to channel Clarke, while tackling the central notion with a Baxterian ambition to outdo all its previous sf treatments, and steering towards an 'Omega Point' conclusion that manages to remain true to both authors' implied philosophies.
The SF gadget at the heart of the story is the time viewer, already explored by enough authors that I suspect it will merit its own theme entry in the hoped third edition of the Encyclopedia of SF (where at present it's briefly discussed under TIME TRAVEL). A Clarke/Baxter afterword mentions a very few past examples, such as Gardner Hunting's cobwebbed and forgotten The Vicarion (1926) and Bob Shaw's first slow glass story 'Light of Other Days' (1966) -- which for obvious reasons demanded acknowledgement, although Shaw's novel-length development of the theme in Other Days, Other Eyes (1972) is of substantially greater relevance and thematic overlap.
A few other treatments not listed in that afterword are worth noting. All turn on the realization that the ability to view any segment of the past extends to effectively present times, just a second or a millisecond ago. T.L. Sherred's 1947 'E For Effort' is deeply pessimistic about a time-viewer's impact on society, and argues -- without going into issues of personal privacy -- that the paranoid military would launch a devastating first strike before their secrets could be laid bare. Isaac Asimov's 'The Dead Past' (1956) leads up to 'There will be no such thing as privacy' as its shock punchline, and closes on a note of tight-lipped horror at the anticipated new era of sickly voyeurism. But in 'I See You' (1976) Damon Knight responds or seems to respond to Asimov with his contrary vision of an ultimate glass-walled utopia free from guilt and shame: 'Forever.'
Clarke and Baxter generally follow the Knight line with their WormCam device, which selects one of infinitely many natural wormholes linking any pair of chosen locations, expands and stabilizes it with exotic matter (that Baxterian staple) to make it a functioning peephole across space, and later extends the view through time as well. Perhaps it's a tiny homage that when megalomaniac entrepreneur Hiram Patterson is first presented by his scientists with the WormCam image of a distant colleague, he gasps: 'I ... see ... you.'
There's a punning inevitability in the fact that the WormCam opens numerous large cans of worms, virtually all of which are painstakingly explored. After a brief period during which the reporter girlfriend of Patterson's son scoops the world media with WormCam information, there's government intervention, independent discovery of the principle, general availability of WormCams, and the end of privacy. This spins off 'SmartShroud' clothing that provides anonymity in crowds, and a cult of dropouts forever fleeing WormCam surveillance.
Adding the time-viewer aspect unpacks a larger and messier can of worms, as deeper and deeper views of history become accessible. First old criminal cases come under review as in Other Days, Other Eyes, and then for a while the narrative is fragmented into a tour of great historical mysteries. This meshes with Clarke's fondness for throwing in a mini-essay on any subject that occurs to him, and several of the historical vignettes end with his (or is it the ventriloquial Baxter's?) characteristic straining for a final high note, sometimes plangent and sometimes plonking. Thus, after a severely rational account of Jesus's life, we are allowed one small surprise: 'And yet it is after all true, as Blake sang, that those feet in ancient time did walk upon England's mountains green.'
(Despite generally preferring to debunk unorthodox views of history, our authors throw one generous sop to the conspiracy theorists with a mercifully brief "revelation" which links Marilyn Monroe, Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. It must be true -- Arthur C. Clarke said so!)
For a time the novel almost loses its way in history's garden of forking paths and cunning passages. 'You Americans are lucky that you are already running out of history,' someone remarks as Abraham Lincoln is tactfully exposed as both impressive and a jolly good fellow. 'We Europeans have thousands more years left to witness.' Happily, we Terrans have millions, even billions of years before that, and the sense of wonder revs up considerably as Light of Other Days plunges into truly deep time -- an exhilarating joy-ride to before the known beginnings, with a poignant discovery at journey's end. This largely justifies the sprawl of historical digressions.
A very late but reasonably logical spinoff of the WormCam is free power from wormhole-tapping of geothermal heat ('I See You' used the Sun). Another provides a note of near-transcendence on which to conclude the story -- not quite the Clarkean unknowable of Childhood's End but a more rational, more Baxterian trope. Thus Light of Other Days ends on a pleasant and satisfying if less than wholly unfamiliar note.
Linking all the above is an intermittent storyline involving Patterson, the two sons he has manipulated in different ways, and son number one's journalist lady-love. It's modestly interesting, and contains various dramatic twists: personality clashes, secrets of parentage, a dubious trial for industrial espionage (where the potential of WormCam evidence seems severely undervalued to make the story work), flight, kidnapping, imprisonment, plans for vengeance, etc. The participants have flashes of life, but on the whole don't seem fully realized or three-dimensional; they spend a lot of time being mouthpieces or viewpoints for the next global-scale development.
Meanwhile, what with wormholes, proliferating WormCams and Patterson's industrial complex soon being nicknamed the Wormworks, it does seem a little too much of a good thing to introduce -- in the early pages -- an unstoppable rogue planetoid which will fatally impact Earth a few centuries hence and which scientists overly fond of Revelations have christened the Wormwood. Still less did I wish to be informed, in this context, that 'it is a chill coincidence that the Russian for "Wormwood" is "Chernobyl".'
Nevertheless it's good fun overall; pace Gentry Lee and the rest, The Light of Other Days is probably the best of all Clarke's collaborations to date, and indeed rather better than any of his solo novels in at least a decade. Some carping readers may remark that this isn't saying a great deal, but the book reads enjoyably and is full of incidental invention. Another novel from this dynamic duo -- perhaps with a less ramifying, hydra-headed and generally vermiferous theme -- would be welcome.
|First published in The New York Review of SF 145,
October 2000. Reportedly Steve Baxter tried hard to dissuade his collaborator
from "stealing" a title so inextricably associated with a classic Bob
Shaw story, but Sir Arthur refused to budge.|
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