Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Verner Vinge: Across Real Time

Across Real time contains two linked novels that were originally published separately. It's a bit late to offer a review of novels published more than 20 years ago but I will share my thoughts on reading the compilation last week.

The first novel "The Peace War" is an enjoyable adventure yarn that introduces a few big ideas without really exploring them. In the second novel "Marooned in Real Time" the themes and ideas are explored more thoroughly. "Marooned" gives an early glimpse of Vinge's ability to think through a big idea and follow it to logical but surprising conclusions. Sadly the plot that ties "Marooned" together is a poorly executed detective story. Rabbits pulled from hats, Deus ex Machina and and a clumsy detective dénouement are used to wrap up the story in an entirely unsatisfactory fashion. Still the two books complement each other well and the presentation of both in a combined volume makes a lot of sense.

When I read "A Fire Upon the Deep" I was struck by the number and quality of Really Big Ideas that Vinge wove into that work. These earlier works have only one big idea and a number of themes.

The big idea is called bobbling but in fact it is really a very logical thought out approach to time travel. Imagine that we want to write a story about time travel that is logically consistent with the laws of science as we know them. Firstly we must reject travel backwards in time - too many paradoxes and causality issues. Travel forward is less paradoxical but also has its problems. Pluck a person from today and planting them fifty years into the future violates every conservation principle known to science. The solution that Vinge so elegantly postulates is for the time traveller to enter a form of stasis. Their mass and momentum continue to exist in real time but the passage of time stops for the traveller until they exit from their stasis bubble at the predetermined future destination. For the stasis to be absolute there must be no interaction between the time traveller and the outside world so the bubble has to be perfectly impermeable and perfectly reflective. Thus we have come to the mirrored spherical bobbles of Vinge's novels. The only flaw I can see is that since items within bobbles retain their mass they still interact with gravitational fields. At one point in "Marooned" a scheme to send a traveller through a black hole while embobbled is discussed but it is not clear to me that the bobble would actually protect the traveller from the tidal forces involved.

In addition to the bobbling idea the novels (particularly marooned) dwell on the idea of a technological singularity and of the concept of ungovernment. These are recurring themes in Vinges work but I must admit that I am not convinced about either of these ideas.

The technological singularity idea takes note of the accelerating rate of human progress and postulates that at a certain point progress will lead to a dramatic sudden change (the singularity) to a state which is so different from what we have to day that we cannot even begin to imagine it. It is often suggested that the kick off point for the singularity will be the creation of the first artificial superhuman intelligence. This intelligence will be able to create even more advanced intelligences leading rapidly to an abrupt leap in progress. As evidence for the coming singularity graphs showing the exponential rate of progress of humanity are shown but for me this is a major hole in their argument. An exponential curve may grow at an ever accelerating rate but it does not have a singularity. To say otherwise is bad maths.

Ungovernment (Anarcho-capitalism) suggests that individuals would do better without government but allowing the free market to provide the things that governments normally provide. I am extremely sceptical. I am neither economist of historian but I know enough about market failure to realise that I do not want to rely on an unrestricted free market to provide me with public goods. In Vinge's books misgovernment is hailed as the optimum solution for a technologically advanced society. However the example is trivial. Vinge's High Techs are so advanced that they are capable of supplying all of their own needs. There is no economy and no market because none are needed.


Tipa said...

I'm a major Vinge fan. His Singularity, though, is what you make of it -- all he really says is that in the future, we will reach a point beyond which we cannot predict anything based on what we now know. We could be in the singularity right now -- certainly the stuff we do now would be entirely beyond conception of a person living a hundred years ago. I mean, entirely. My job didn't even exist in the most forward-looking SF fifty years ago, as the very concept of a world wide web which contained all human knowledge and its need for people to present that information in useful ways -- simply didn't exist.

Ten thousand years ago, people could have looked ahead five thousand years and pretty much understood what was going on. Now, I'd be hard pressed to look ahead ten years.

Just think how universal, immediate, individual communication vis a vis cell phones are changing society. Five years ago, you could have gotten along without one. Nowadays, being without one seems quaint. In five years, life in a modern tech society without one will be impossible.

We may not be approaching a singularity in the mathematical sense, but in the social sense, we certainly are. We are likely right in the middle of it. No matter how tricky a curve gets, after all, it always looks flat locally (if it has a derivative).

Anyway, regarding the books. They're unusual in modern SF in that they are ultimately hopeful that humanity, warts and all, can find salvation through technology.

That's risky writing. Most SF shows future humanity as being exactly like today's humanity, just with cooler gadgets, but drop them in the middle of some woods with nothing and they'd be okay. The Heinlein approach. Prople don't change, just their toys.

A lot of modern SF is Luddite in nature -- technology will destroy us all, only by returning to our low tech roots can we preserve what is precious to us.

And then there's the Clarke future, the one Vinge shares, which says we won't understand our children's children's lives at all; we were born into one world and they will live in another.

This, I think, is the realistic way of looking at it.

"Marooned in Real-Time"'s detective story is kind of clumsy, but then, its purpose wasn't to write a whodunit -- as you mention, the ending is kind of arbitrary and there weren't enough clues for us to guess "whodunit", a requirement for the genre.

I was saddened by the story of the woman left to live out her life alone, sending love letters to a future she'd never know.

Vinge's aim was to bring us closer to the Singularity by increments, and to show that no matter how we may be changed in the future, no matter how incomprehensible our lives may become, there will still be something that we would recognize as human.

Robert Silverberg in his story "One Million AD" and other stories, takes the opposite argument. He says we will never understand our descendants. Their lives will always be incomprehensible.

Both talk about the inevitability of the singularity -- but they differ on when. Vinge thinks it is happening right now. Silverberg feels comfortable putting it well in the future.

Tipa said...

A black hole would burst a bobble, but not from tidal forces. At least not from gravitational tides. The difference in the speed at which time passes between the lower and higher parts of the bobble would disrupt it, and pretty quickly, I think.

Vinge explicitly treats bobbles as a homogenous ball of space-time of a given volume and density.

You missed all the old USENET discussions of bobbling.

Hmmm... Google Groups has all the old rec.arts.sf.written discussions on this. Here's one:

Discussion of bobble physics

SF fans are the coolest people on Earth or off of it.

Tipa said...

Wow... I found five programs I wrote back in the 80s and submitted to the games USENET group. And they're still on the Internet.

Five little bits of my life scattered out there, and now I have them back.

mbp said...

Thank you Tipa for drawing my attention to those usenet discussions. Great stuff. When I read those ardent discussions by sci fi fans I feel very insignificant. I am forced to admit that I am no more than a closet normal person masquerading as a nerd.

Your comment that "we won't understand our children's children's lives at all" has struck a chord. I can see the truth of that already and I can only imagine that several generations from now my descendants will live lives that are incomprehensible to me. There is no singularity however - no unique moment in time that can be termed the unique break point.

Agreed that Marta Korolev's fate in "Marooned" was touching and one of the best things in the story.

Cough...cough..may I suggest that the difference in the rate at which time passes in different spatial regions close to a blackhole is due to the different rates of gravitational acceleration in these regions and is therefore a tidal phenomenon after all! I never majored in physics so this could be bs but its worth a shot in an effort to re-establish some smidgen of nerdy credibility .

Tipa said...

Although in his stories, Vinge usually depicts the Singularity with a capital-S, transcending event, in interviews he uses a smaller 's' -- a metaphor, or convenient name for the ever-increasing rate of change.

He's said the only thing that could possibly slow us down would be a devastating global war. And in fact, he put one in his books for just that reason -- so he'd have more time in which to play with pre-singularity humanity.

Post-singularity sounds scary, but I wouldn't mind living right on the cusp.

res.arts.sf.written was a home for scientists, hard SF writers (several posted in the discussion) and fans. Then Usenet turned into an illegal file sharing haven, and the rest of the Internet went commercial and low-brow.

Now fans are left finding homes in various forums -- SF writer Charles Stross has a very nice one -- waiting for the next means to meet to exist.