Monday, July 28, 2008

The Light of Other Days - A review

The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

Spoilers be found ahead.

"Many true-story versions of historic events - the Cuba missile crises, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Euro - while of interest to aficionados, have turned out to be muddled, confusing, and complex. It is dismaying to realize that even those supposedly at the centers of power generally know little and understand less of what is going on around them."

"And worse than that, the truth generally turns out to be boring."

-Clarke and Baxter, The Light of Other Days

The Light of Other Days isn't boring. It's a big think piece of science fiction that takes the concept of "truth" and runs it through the science fictional wringer by postulating one small technological advance.

What if someone invented a machine that allowed you to see anywhere, anytime, with almost no hope of blocking it?

Hiram Patterson, ruthless industrialist, has managed to produce just such a machine. The WormCam passes information through tiny holes in the space time continuum. What does this mean? It means no more satellites or radio waves or fiber optic cables. No more information conduits to be blocked. No more cameras or bugs or wiretaps, either. Want to get the real scoop on cheating by wives or beating by cops? Poke a hole through space-time and look and listen to your heart's content. Walls or distance or cryptography or protections from electronic surveillance mean nothing to the WormCam.

In fact, because you're poking holes in space and time, you can even look back in history, so that you can watch past indiscretions, too. Uncover political cover-ups. See for sure if there was a crash at Roswell. Or a Moses.

The science behind the WormCam is fun. Hiram uses buckyballs and squeezed vacuum to generate anti matter to stabilize the wormholes. It's fun-er if you know some physics, but quantum science is so reminiscent of eighteenth century pseudo-science anyway that it comes off as charmingly pulpy. And hell, buckyball is just a fun word.

On the whole, the WormCam technology seems realistic, with appropriate flaws. For instance, you can't send information back in time through a wormhole because the feedback will collapse the hole. And what you see is limited to what the WormCam operator looks for.

Also, WormCam technology seems to evolve rationally. At first, wormholes can't transmit sound or see in the dark. Eventually they can do much more!

What does any of this technology have to do with truth? There's the obvious: people can't hide from their actions for long. The WormCams can look anywhere, at any time.

To a certain extent, The Light of Other Days is about the benefits of transparency (a social philosophy that believes openness to be more beneficial than secrecy in the long run). Why commit a crime or lie a lie if it can be uncovered so easily?

Not even Hiram can hide from the WormCam's exposure of his own unethical activities. For instance, dosing his favorite son with mind control drugs so that he won't succumb to the religious impulses of his "older brother." Or that the favorite son is, in fact, a clone of Hiram.

And if history was transparent? It's written down. It's in the record. How wrong could history possibly be? Well, the implications are staggering.

In the Clarke/Baxter history of the world, there are no supernatural events. No Roswell. No ghosts or UFO abductions to be found anywhere by looking back in time. Many heroes are struck down or revealed to be amalgamations of historical figures. Robin Hood was a figure from a ballad; the legend of Moses constructed from the lives of several Israeli patriarchs from that age.

Despite it's skeptic tendencies, The Light of Other Days is hardly anti-religious. The authors do mention, frequently, the shortcomings of religious culture: the violence and the mythologization of history. On the other hand, several of the main characters are deeply religious and struggle with the implications that history has for their religious beliefs and organizations. I think this is the strongest possible testament to their morality.

To digress.

Can you imagine what a relief it would be to separate historical truth from wishful thinking? No more jerk-off hate mongers claiming that the Holocaust was a hoax. No more mindless nattering about the government covering up UFO crashes.

There is the icky possibility that these myths could be revealed as truths... but given the wealth of evidence about the Holocaust, and the dearth of information about Roswell, I tend to doubt it. Call me practical.

The flip side of this is that, as thinly documented as any of the conspiracy theories are, people still manage to "keep the faith". So an extra dose or reality probably wouldn't phase any sizable community of believers.

Digression fini.

Besides rampant mythologization of fact, history in general is a mess.

"The WormCam, after all, does not deliver its history lessons in the form of verbal summaries or neat animated maps. Nor does it have much to say of glory or honor. Rather, it simply shows us human beings, one at a time - very often starving or suffering or dying at the hands of others."

Seeing the horrible things your ancestors did first hand is uncomfortable. You can distance yourself from the sheer awfulness of history when it is consigned to books, but when Clarke and Baxter's characters see it in front of them, they empathize with the victims of old crimes as much as they do with new ones. History is much more complex, and more personal, than the history books make it out to be.

"Greatness no longer matters. We see now that each human being who dies is the center of a universe: a unique spark of hope and despair, hate and love, going alone into the greater darkness. It is as if the WormCam has brought a new democracy to the viewing of history..."

"Now, what matters most is my story-or my lover's, or my parent's, or my ancestor's, who dies in the most mundane, meaningless of deaths in the mud of Stalingrad or Passchendaele or Gettysburg, or simply in some unforgiving field, broken by a life of drudgery."

Playing out in the background of The Light of Other Days are the disasters of the future: the ecology is finally collapsing from many years of human abuse, and a giant comet from outside the solar system that may once have been a moon of Neptune is going to hit the earth (in five hundred years). The comet, Wormwood, is named after the doomsday moon from the Book of Revelations.

These background events aren't necessary to fuel the illusion of a living future. Instead, I think they actually serve to put a cap on history, of sorts. The comet puts doomsday at a comfortable reserve, providing an end to human history as the whole human race use the WormCams look back through the entirety of history like a massive family photo album. The comet and failing environment remind them that all the effort and suffering could be for nothing if they don't get cracking. It highlights the fragility of our ecosystem on earth, the preciousness of striving (though some might say the hopelessness of striving).

The prose in Light of Other Days is smooth, and although the characters are not drawn with finesse (everybody is pretty much what they seem to be), they are likable and thwart stereotypes. The plot meanders through the effects of super transparency and "history shock" on all the main characters: Hiram, his sons, and people connected to them, and is often sidetracked by digressions on the nature of history or culture, some of which I quote above. It was these faux-scholarly digressions on the tenuous connections between history and reality that made the novel most entertaining for me.

All in all, The Light of Better Days is an intellectually exciting read. The only explosions are conceptual, and the action comes from following a culture racing to keep up with technology driven cultural change. If you want submarine rescues or car chases, you can read Tom Clancy or watch TV. But if you want to see deeply into history, you can do it in The Light of Other Days.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

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