Saturday, September 19, 2015

Thalen Reads A World Out of Time

I thought I was ready for anything, but this-- - Peter Corbell
In the year 1990, give or take a few, a man dying of cancer had himself frozen in desperate hope that he might be revived and cured in the future. 200 years later he awakes to find himself in an entirely new body, with no rights or property, force to work off a debt to the world-wide totalitarian state that revived him. So begins Larry Niven's 1976 novel A World Out of Time.

I've read a fair bit of Niven's other works, particularly the ones set in Known Space such as Ringworld and short stories collected in Neutron Star. This book is recognizably Niven, but noticeably different from those other works. Most noticeably there are no aliens involved at all. All the characters are humans, though there is the 'man out of time' element to make things seem alien to our protagonist.

Speaking of the protagonist, Peter Corbell is unlike your typical space hero. We never learn all that much about his past; he was married and had children, was an architect, and enjoyed to travel. That's pretty much everything we find out. His new body is even more of an enigma, a man who committed some crime against the State and had his personality wiped because of it. We do learn that Corbell is the fourth personality to have been placed in this body, the others didn't work out. Corbell is never portrayed as particularly impressive physically or mentally, he mostly makes it through the story by being more useful alive than dead.

For that matter, we learn little of the State that rules Earth in the year 2190. We know it's world-spanning and has begun looking towards planetary colonization to secure humanity's future. We learn that it holds a monopoly on the generation of energy on Earth, and thus all of its citizens are wholly dependent upon the State for their needs. It's heavily implied that the human population has skyrocketed over 200 years and that privacy is a thing of the past.

The state of Earth in 2190 is really only important as the springboard that propels Corbell into the real story. The job assigned to him is that of 'rammer', he will pilot a Bussard ramjet in a centuries long mission to seed a number of planets with algae in hopes of converting their reducing atmospheres into oxygen atmospheres suitable for human life. Once on his way, however, Corbell changes course and heads for the Galactic Center in hopes of using the time dilation aspects of relativistic speed to return millennia later when either the State has fallen or colonies might exist and have broken away. Ultimately a desperate attempt to return before the ship breaks down (it wasn't meant to maintain the speed Corbell needs for such long periods of time) results in a slingshot around the galaxy's central black hole, returning him to Earth 3 million years later.

In 3 million years the solar system has changed quite a lot. The Sun has expanded and is hotter (more than it should be), Earth now orbits Jupiter which is itself generating more heat than it ought, and the majority of Earth is parched and uninhabitably hot. Corbell arrives on this massively changed planet to find that civilization rose to technological heights, then fell leaving only the Antarctic continent inhabited by immortal prepubescent boys and a small population of men and women who are left to age normally for breeding purposes.

The gender politics of this story get kind of weird; Niven portrays a world where a form of immortality was discovered that only works prior to puberty and arrests one's aging at that point. Without sex to hold them together, the genders split into Girls and Boys with the Girls holding control over the sky, and thus space travel and weather while the Boys held the majority of the land. At some point the two sides went to war, resulting in the annihilation of the Girls and the Boys controlling what remains of Earth. Corbell's main goal after coming to this changed Earth becomes a search for a legendary form of immortality that worked for adults but was limited to only the elite.

A World Out of Time was an enjoyable enough book, but I wouldn't call it one of Niven's best. For a new reader I'd recommend his short stories or Ringworld as a better place to start. The coincidences necessary to move the story ahead (though somewhat explained eventually) strained my suspension of disbelief and, more importantly, none of the characters were particularly likable. If the book had ended with Earth's destruction I wouldn't have been particularly sad that any of the characters had died, and it might actually have been a more satisfying conclusion than what we actually get. There's plenty of interesting stuff throughout the book, but it just doesn't all come together quite right to make a satisfying whole.

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