The Light of Other Days
by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter
(HarperCollins Voyager, £17.99, 312 pages, hardback, published 18 September 2000. Trade paperback, £9.99, published 8 May 2001. Mass market paperback, £6.99, published 1 July 2002.)
Bob Shaw's small, perfectly formed story 'The Light of Other Days' has enjoyed a prolonged life. It appeared in Analog in 1966 to widespread acclaim, and Shaw later wrote sequel stories and expanded the concept into a novel, Other Days, Other Eyes (1972). Based on the intriguing premise of 'slow glass', glass through which light takes years to travel, it remains one of the finest in 60s SF, and it is a small scandal that it is not now in print.
Now two of the most respected names in British Hard SF have collaborated to bring out a new version of this tale, re-using Shaw's haunting title and dedicating the novel 'To Bob Shaw'. The glass has been updated - there were always conceptual problems with it, in fact (unless it was constructed implausibly pure and even, the image passing through such a slow medium would emerge the other side hopelessly distorted). So instead of glass Clarke and Shaw give us up-to-date noughties talk of wormholes, squeezed vacuums and the like. But the essential premise is the same: this is a book about looking into the past.
The story through which this premise works itself out is not the book's greatest strength. It would be nice to think that Clarke and Baxter are utilising worn-through Soap clichés for the ironic possibilities they bring, but it seems unlikely.
Hiram Patterson is a brilliant scientist-entrepreneur, the head of a global corporation, with (that infallible marker of pulp romance) penetrating, brilliant blue eyes. He has a handsome, talented playboy son Bobby. But, we learn, he also had a secret second family in France, and Bobby's half-brother, David ('pronounced,' we are told with a degree of superfluousness, 'the French way: Dah-veed') is wheeled on stage. David is a theoretical physicist, 'the Hawking of his generation', also handsome, brilliant, and underneath his sexy exterior troubled in his faith. Into this family dynamic comes the stunningly beautiful, brilliant and yet, beneath her angry exterior, vulnerable young journalist Kate Manzoni. These three implausible individuals are combined and opposed in the usual soapy ways.
When Hiram's corporation invents WormCams, privacy becomes a thing of the past: photons can be channelled through artificially maintained wormholes from anywhere at all. The technology quickly spreads, and soon anybody can eavesdrop on the President's conversation, spy on masturbating teenagers, surveil their husband or wife, or watch complete strangers. Then David (Dah-veed, remember) extends the possibilities of his father's invention, finding a way of looping the wormholes out through light-minutes and eventually light-years, so that the images transmitted instantly through them are of the past: the past of a few minutes ago, or a few years depending on the length of the wormhole. Anybody can now watch the actual, historical Lincoln, Christ, Otzi the cave-man, their grandparents, whoever they like. Religions, faced with the truth obscured by generations of mythmaking, collapse or adapt. Society changes.
The whole thing is all very thought-provoking, partly on the practical level (which historical figure would you want to spy upon?) and partly, more forcefully, in terms of ethical speculation. Would society really be better off if privacy were abolished? Would absolute and unforgiving truth really be better than comforting myth?
Clarke and Baxter faced the problem that many SF authors face. They have a Really Cool Idea, but simply laying that idea before us and working through some of its implications isn't going to snare readers; the Really Cool Idea must be embodied via character, narrative and 'writing'. And these are the weakest aspect of the novel. The writing, although peppered with all manner of ingenious trinkets (tattooed watches, cranial implants to modify mood and so on) is workmanlike and sometimes clunking. The markers of futurity, those details dropped obliquely into the text to remind the reader that this imagined world is different from the one we all inhabit, seem a little unimaginative: 'the President of the United States and her husband', Norfolk sunk by global warming, Britain now 'the fifty-second state of the USA' and the like. And the plot shows signs of having been artificially squeezed to try and keep the reader interested. Beautiful investigative reporter Kate is accused of a crime she patently didn't commit, and the trial is kept hanging fire through chapter after chapter in hackneyed 'make 'em wait' manner. Characterisation is monofilament-thin, and the protagonists' 'secrets', unearthed by the all-seeing eye of the WormCams are pure SFized Peyton Place (clones! plots!). Clarke and Baxter even rustle up that SF mega-cliché, an enormous asteroid certain to collide with Earth and wipe out all life (in five hundred years), so that the clock is, as it were, ticking throughout the narrative, albeit in a slightly distant way.
And yet The Light of Other Days is more than the sum of these parts. It holds a reader's attention and leaves him or her thoughtful. The underlying premise is powerful, a real grower. There are passages that are simply superb. For instance a chapter in which Dah-veed winds back along his own blood-line, tracing mitochondrial DNA back into time, in which civilisation unpicks itself and humanity migrates back to caves in Africa, like Wells's Time Machine in reverse; this was writing that seemed to this reviewer to bear the distinctive stamp of Baxter's neo-Wellsian genius.
There may be some problems with the physics of the fundamental premise, although nothing so major as with Shaw's original Slow Glass. Since the WormCams siphon off photons from the historical events they observe into the future, wouldn't the cumulative effect be to reduce the ambient light levels of those events, possibly to plunge the more popular observed-events into darkness? And I wasn't convinced by the mechanism by which characters can sweep back millions of years in time. Each nano-second earlier would require a different, longer wormhole to be isolated from space-time and stabilised; are there enough wormholes, even in the myriad bubblings of planck-scale space, to provide a sequence of so many trillions each a light-nano-second longer than the one before, each looped from the same observer position back to a slightly different position back in time? There are presumably many such wormholes, but the number is surely not infinite. But this is nitpicking.
Comparing the novel with Shaw's original story, however, leaves an oblique sense of something missing from the re-make in terms of emotional impact. In the 1966 'Light of Other Days', an unhappily married couple are touring the highlands, and stop at a 'farm' for slow glass, where the material is laid out on the hillsides soaking up, as it were, the view, so that it can later be fitted in city-houses and provide the inhabitants with nicer scenery. Negotiating with the owner to buy some of his glass they notice his wife and child through the window of his house; but it transpires that both are dead, killed by a hit-and-run driver years before. 'Light passes out of a house,' says the narrator, 'as well as in'. Now the man has nothing but the image of his family on the glass of his own house. 'I'm entitled to keep something,' he says. It is a story about 'looking into the past', and Shaw's special glass is a superbly eloquent trope for memory. But the pathos of the story is that, at some point in the future, the image of dead wife and dead child will pass through the slow glass altogether and be lost, that the man will no longer have even these images. This is a pathos that Clarke and Baxter's novel lacks. With their more thorough-going wormhole technology nothing at all can be lost, every place and every time can be observed and even (at the novel's end) retrieved. It is all absolutely there, and Clarke-Baxter trot through it all, even history's bloodshed and suffering, with bullish, up-beat brio. Perhaps this very completeness of access flattens the emotional effectiveness of the tale, and loses the tinge of sadness that Shaw (and Proust) understood always to be attached to that 'looking into the past' that we call memory.
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© Adam Roberts 30 December 2001