"Across Realtime" by Vernor Vinge (1986)
"'Yeah. I was born about ten megayears after the Singularity - the Extinction, Juan calls it. I've read and watched all about cops and criminals and soldiers, but till now I've never actually met any."
Vernor Vinge has been writing science fiction since the 1960s. He won the Hugo for his novel A Fire Upon the Deep, though he is best known for The Peace War, one of the two novels that together form Across Realtime.
Across Realtime consists of three parts, all of which were published elsewhere at earlier dates. These three parts are The Peace War, a novel describing the development of "bobble technology" and its social impact, The Ungoverned, a short story detailing the struggle between two nations following The Peace War, and Marooned in Realtime, a murder mystery set long after the events of The Ungoverned.
So what's this "bobble technology?" Well, not to put too fine a point on it (the author doesn't, anyway), "bobble technology" involves the creation of a sphere (or field) around an object. Once inside this sphere (or field), the object (or person) goes into stasis for varying periods of time. Time, for all intents and purposes, does not exist inside the bobble, and the bobble cannot be penetrated by any outside force.
All of which borders on magic... if you ask me. And what bothers me more is that several characters within The Peace War - upon whose lives the very concept of bobbles hinges - never really bother to question the fundamental nature of this technology and its ramifications. Why, for instance, can't you put a bobble around another bobble? Why are bobbles indestructible? What does it say about the nature of time, if it can be rendered "inert" at a certain point? And what is happening inside a bobble - exactly? Despite the praise sometimes heaped upon the author for thinking through the implications of his invented technologies, he leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and a lot of avenues unexplored.
The three parts of this collection also vary in quality, and often for very different reasons. The first part, The Peace War, is probably the weakest of the three. It comes to a grinding halt about half of the way through, and after that point it's a real chore to finish. None of the characters in this novel are adequately fleshed out, and the struggle between the Peace Authority, a group controlling the world through bobbles, and the so-called Tinkers is full of some large, bobble-sized plot holes. Wili, the protagonist, is probably the most sympathetic character in the whole collection, but even his character development dwindles to nothing in the final, excruciatingly boring military confrontation that concludes this story.
The Ungoverned doesn't have much to do with bobbles, and instead focuses on three members of a post-"Peace War" republic caught up in a confrontation between two nations. It's very Libertarian in tone, with a single landowner standing up against seemingly overwhelming odds. All in all it's pretty silly, but it gets a pass because it's short.
Marooned in Realtime closes the book, and this is, in my opinion the best of the three parts. Some implications of the bobble technology are finally explored, though not in as much detail as I would have liked. As I read it, I kept thinking about how much more interesting this idea would have been in the hands of an author like Arthur C. Clarke or Philip K. Dick - someone ready to get theoretical. As it is, Vinge introduces some interesting bobble-inspired approaches to space travel and "time tourism," but as I read I kept thinking about other, unanswered questions that the characters might have posed to one another. What, for example, would happen if you shot a large enough bobble into the center of the sun? And how would relativistic time effects act on a bobble propelled to near-light speed? Does a bobble have mass? Would you need to decelerate before you created another bobble?
Anyway, you get the idea.
The characters in Marooned in Realtime are also, despite the "harder" science fiction on display, among the least sympathetic in the entire collection. To put it another way, they are all quite boring, and this lessened my enthusiasm for the murder mystery that lies at the center of this story.
And to make matters worse, the reveal at the book's conclusion is a completely arbitrary affair, which not even the smartest reader could have anticipated. In this the author has failed to understand the appeal of the detective novel, in that any good mystery story ought to be full of clues that the reader, alongside the protagonist, puts together to solve a mystery. Without the possibility of identifying the killer just before the "hero" does, where's the fun?
So, is this book good or bad? On the whole, I'd say it's readable. It's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but it's better than a lot of other science fiction novels released during the 80s. A still lesser-known author like Brian Stableford could have worked wonders with this bobble idea, but hey, his loss is Vernor Vinge's gain.