Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge

Vinge swings for the fences with this Singularity novel and scores a grand-slam.

Pages: 273 (Paperback)
Publisher: Tor
ISBN: 0-765-30884-3

As a fan of both Vinge, and Singularity-themed sci-fi, I was anticipating Marooned In Realtime, despite a strange reluctance I felt about the title. Originally from 1986, this book is a sequel to The Peace War, which I haven't yet read, and features characters from the short story The Ungoverned which I had read in the excellent "True Names and Other Dangers" collection.

Marooned In Realtime opens on a post-Singularity apocalyptic Earth -- somewhere in the past, civilization reached the apex of achievement, and disappeared, leaving little evidence of what happened to them. A few clues are interpreted as indicating a global ascension to intellectual godhood, others seem to indicate a hostile alien intecession. The only ones left to pick up the pieces are those who have essentially time-traveled forward from before the singularity utilizing "bobble" technology -- a system for creating an impervious bubble of halted reality within for a set period of time. The stranded travelers are from different eras, some from the techno-utopia just prior to the singularity, some from earlier eras of lower technology. Some sent themselves forward intentionally to see the future, to watch the downfall of Earth, to see the Second Coming, or for their own reasons. Some were bobbled by accident, some even by hostile action.

All have been gathered together in one place in the far future by the Korolevs, a pair of women from the high-tech era who are intent on saving the human race from total extinction by collecting all remaining specimens in one place to start a new gene pool large enough for viability. Their goal is to re-start the progression of technology before all their existing high-tech gear fails and can no longer be repaired, refueled and replaced.

But in every Eden there is a snake and an apple, and before too many chapters the popular and gentle Marta Korolev is murdered -- Marooned in Realtime -- intentionally left outside the time-stopping bobbles when the entire colony deliberately jumps forward decades to allow the fallout of one of their actions to settle.

The last colonist to see Marta alive is W. W. Brierson, a "low-tech", a police detective from an earlier era. Recruited by Yelen Korolev to solve the mystery of Marta's murder, he plunges in over his head in alien territory as he uncovers clues. Along the way he is assisted by Yelen, as well as Della Lu, a bizarre being, physically human, but changed by nine thousand years of living as a deep-space explorer who left Earth shortly before the singularity. Is Yelen actually the murderer? Is Della an alien masquerading as human to destroy the settlement? What about the guy who sent Brierson into the future unwillingly, tearing him from his life and family, who still walks the colony as a free man under a new identity?

Vinge is a master of the art. His characters are intricate with many levels and hidden features, like an origami bird. His technology is solid and not flashy -- while the Bobbles are the MacGuffin and workhorse of the plot, they never really undermine the plot. The story is built atop Bobbles, but the story is the star. There is real emotion between the characters and plenty of detective-story mystery, clues and red herring. The final whodunnit will surprise everyone.

This is a singularity story that works, partly because it doesn't let the singularity "gee-whiz" factor overpower the story. Mostly this is because the singularity is a side-artifact that simply sets the stage for the forlorn Earth and its few lonely children. The character of Della Lu and the missing Earth inhabitants are reminiscent of the storyline of the haunting game/novel "Portal", which I also enjoyed greatly.

Like Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky (which I have yet to review here), this is a top-notch book that I'd recommend to anyone.

Marooned in Realtime (paperback)

Other Reviews: