Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Timeline of Events in Vinge's Across Realtime Novels

The following is a timeline of events in Vernor Vinge's "Across Realtime" series of novels and stories - specifically, The Peace War (1984), Marooned in Realtime (1986), and the short story "The Ungoverned" (1985), which can be found in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (2002).  Obviously, this timeline contains spoilers, and one should probably not read through it without at least having read Marooned in Realtime.

1992-93: Livermore Energy Labs discovers containment field ("bobble"), developed by Paul Hoehler
1997: Peace Authority (PA) seizes power after instigating limited nuclear
war between U.S. and Soviet Union
1997-2010: War viruses and genetic plagues kill 5.5 billion worldwide
2015: Huachuca war plague, released by surviving remnant of U.S. government, kills 100 million of remaining 500 million humans
2020s: PA discontinues radar watch for illegal aerospace craft
2038: Middle California Tinkers agree to hide their best new electronics gear to avoid PA detection
2040s: PA embobbles Yakima after discovering recombination analyzer
2047-48: Bobble War; fall of Peace Authority
2050s: Longevity breakthrough
2080s: Water War between New Mexico and Aztlan (over Colorado River, presumably)
2090s: Disgovernance of Aztlan; New Mexicans invade Kansas
2097: Republic of NM renounces tax authority and effectively disgoverns
2100: W.W. Brierson shanghaied; family bobbles gifts in 2140 and 2180
2101: Livermore returns to realtime
2150s: Della Lu and Miguel Rosas explore outer Solar System
2160: "Philippe Genet" becomes construction contractor
2190s: Miguel Rosas dies on Dark Companion expedition
2195: Monica Raines enters stasis
2197: Mudge leaves systems programming and becomes chiliast
2200: Jason Mudge and Juan Chanson enter stasis
2201: Korolevs and Genet enter stasis
2202: Della Lu departs for Gatewood's Star (Lalande 21185)
2207: Tunc Blumenthal's company opens antimatter distillery in southern solar hemisphere, begins plans to turn Dark Companion into Tipler Cylinder
2209: Blumenthal attends marketing conference on Moon; can't understand discussions but thinks Stellation, Inc. has lost interest in Dark Companion project
2210: Tunc Blumenthal enters stasis, crashes into sun
2230: Juan Chanson claims Norcross graffiti were composed this year
2295: Mudge out of stasis; notes he is past Singularity
2465: Rohan and Dilip Dasgupta leave stasis
3400: Lu returns from Gatewood's Star; finds evidence of nuclear war
10,000: Korolevs move Dasguptas and other refugees to Canada
32,000: W.W. Sanchez and Korolevs rescue Tunc Blumenthal
62,000: Blumenthal re-enters realtime
MY 20: Grave robbers wiped out by Korolevs and others
MY 30: W.W. Sanchez founds dropout community and dies
MY 49.5: Dragon birds evolve
MY 50: Rescue of Peace Authority bobble in Cambodia.  Della Lu returns from interstellar expedition
MY 50 + 2 years: Marta Korolev reaches Peacer bobble
MY 50 + 40 years: Marta Korolev dies
MY 50.050: Peacers leave stasis and found own town.  Brierson investigation.  Peacer-NM-High tech war.
MY 50.060: Juan Chanson dies in realtime; Earth in ice age
MY 50.1: Della Lu returns after defeating Gerrault


(Links added 21 Aug. 2015.)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Vinge's Road to the Singularity

Vernor Vinge's 1986 novel Marooned in Realtime undertakes two different tasks, succeeding brilliantly at one and achieving some success, of a rather peculiar sort, in the second. Its first goal was to tell a mystery story stretched across several millennia of future time, and to convey the impact of those millennia on ordinary human beings. At this Vinge succeeds magnificently. He was probably the first science fiction author so vividly to convey, on a human scale, the massive changes that can occur in deep geological time: the emergence of strange but believable new species, the reshaping of continents, even the slowing of the earth's rotation. Vinge is able to do this because the protagonists of his novel have access to high technology that shields them from the dangers of their environment and the ravages of time – in particular, a tunable stasis field, or "bobble," that prevents the occupants from experiencing the passage of time and protects them from outside forces. (The bobble is a holdover from Vinge's otherwise forgettable prequel novel, The Peace War, a mediocre post-holocaust adventure story.) When conflict or skullduggery separates Vinge's characters from their tech – well, that's when things get particularly interesting.
Vinge's second goal was to explore the impact of high technology on human intelligence, and this exploration yielded a surprising and, as it turned out, very influential result: the idea that we now refer to as "the Singularity." Vinge began his journey to the Singularity with his very first story, about a human with computer-enhanced intelligence. His younger and more sensible sister persuaded him to set this half-baked first effort aside in favor of another story idea about a chimpanzee with computer-enhanced intelligence. The result was "Bookworm, Run!" (1966), Vinge's first published SF story (and a very entertaining story at that). When Vinge subsequently tried to publish his original story of a super-intelligent human, however, editor John W. Campbell sent him a rejection letter with the note "You can't write this story.  Neither can anyone else." Campbell's point was that human beings don’t have the intellectual tools to understand someone with super-human intelligence, from which one can infer that we can't comprehend a society built by ultra-intelligent people, either.

Vernor Vinge returned to the theme of ultra-intelligent people in his first novel, Grimm's World (1969), and his proto-cyberpunk novella "True Names" (1980), in which characters with genetically or computer-enhanced intelligence conquer their worlds, or at least threaten to do so. In an 1983 editorial published in Omni, and more extensively in Marooned in Realtime, he finally embraced and built on Campbell's implied point that superhuman intelligence produces motives incomprehensible to humans. Trans-humans, Vinge observes, could develop technologies that modern human minds simply couldn't understand, and thus would either have solved or lost interest in human problems and solutions. (In the novel, one group of slightly super-intelligent humans develops the means, in the early twenty-third century, to distill antimatter directly from the sun and to construct a time machine; another population of slightly more super-intelligent humans, just two years later, finds these projects boring.) The path that a society of transhumans would follow is not one that ordinary humans could possibly predict or comprehend. As in the interior of a black hole, ordinary rules of human behavior break down in the presence of super-human intelligence; like a black hole, it creates a singularity in human societies.  

This is probably what lies behind the largest mystery in Vinge's novel: what happened to all the people? The main characters of Marooned in Realtime entered stasis for a variety of reasons, but all emerged sometime after 2250 CE, to discover that Earth's cities were completely abandoned and in ruins. Much speculation about what happened follows, but the hypothesis advanced by astronauts Della Lu and Tunc Blumenthal seems to be the one Vinge favors (though he doesn't ever come out and say so): that human beings evolved into a ultra-intelligent form and disappeared, leaving this plane of existence for one more suited to their unfathomable interests. This is sort of what happened at the conclusion of Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End, though Vinge chose to treat the Singularity as a prologue to a first-rate adventure and deep-future time-travel story, rather than the conclusion of his tale.  Writers like Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow may call the Singularity hypothesis "the rapture of the nerds," but Vinge at least was willing to suggest that life would go on, and remain interesting, for those Left Behind.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Apres Les Flying Spaghetti Monsters, Le Deluge

Invasion of the Air-Eaters was one of a series of small, inexpensive wargames with science-fictional or fantasy themes, published by Metagaming in the 1970s and '80s.  The production quality was usually bargain-basement - a glossy but small rulebook, with rather crude illustrations; a thin sheet of non-die-cut playing counters, and a two-color map - but most of these "Microgames" packed big ideas into small packages.  Invasion was no exception: it postulated a near-future (1983) alien invasion of the Earth that backed the technologically-inferior human race against the wall.  In the game the aliens could destroy human cities and industrial centers with impunity, but their real goal was to convert the Earth's atmosphere into a form - "life-sustaining sulfur dioxide" - that they could breathe and humans could not.  The human defenders' 20th-century weapons were nearly worthless against the aliens' well-shielded bases, crawlers, and atmospheric converters; the basic human starting unit, the Army, comprised "3,000-6,000 tanks, several hundred combat aircraft, and 300,000 - 800,000 men," and could still only destroy an alien unit 1 out of 6 times.  The advanced game gave the humans the option to use nuclear weapons, but even a nuclear attack would only succeed half the time, and the fallout would destroy 7% of the world's industrial capability (per attack).

The humans' salvation lay in their ability to develop more more powerful units - lasers, "disintegrator tanks," combat spacecraft - through expensive research and development programs.  This was one of the first games, I believe, to feature R&D as a major part of strategy, and in this sense it was an important predecessor to Hitler's War (also by Metagaming) and Axis & Allies.  The humans win the game if they can essentially drive the aliens off the planet for two consecutive turns (six months); destroying the alien mothership will usually also win the game for them, unless the invaders are about to finish converting the Earth's atmosphere.  The aliens win if they reduce Earth's "atmospheric index" to zero with their conversion machines; they can improve their chances of doing so if they also attack and destroy the Earth's "industrial units" (cities and factories), since the humans need IUs to produce new units and conduct R&D.

The game appealed to me as a kid because I liked the idea that the humans were up against a terrible foe but could win by improving their technology - an appealing idea to a fledgling D&D fan just discovering the concept of games where one could upgrade the playing pieces (so to speak).  As an adult, Invasion appeals to me as the prelude to a thought experiment: if the humans succeeded in driving off the aliens, what would the world and the lives of ordinary people be like in the aftermath?  I assumed as a youngster that an alien invasion would bring the world's peoples together, but I'm older and more cynical now, and I assume that nations that weren't primary targets of the invasion would reserve at least some of their military resources to exploit their adversaries' weaknesses in the aftermath.  If the invaders devastated Japan, central Europe, and parts of the U.S. before being driven off, for instance, the Soviet Union would have come out of the war stronger than ever, much like the aftermath of WWII.  The Soviets would have a new generation of leaders - the sclerotic old leadership of the early '80s would have died out as the atmosphere went bad - and access to a relatively unscathed industrial heartland, nuclear weapons, and alien-derived technology.  Probably it would have been able to crack down on its satellites after the war and "Finlandize" whatever nations were still left in Europe.

Meanwhile, the U.S. would have been weakened by the war, and its post-invasion government would probably have been rather McCarthyite, hunting for pro-Soviet dissidents or purloiners of alien technology rather than focusing on reconstruction.  The American armed forces would surely have alien-derived technology but would keep it under wraps; in this world, the government really would have secret warehouses containing the remains of aliens (or at least their machines).

The new technologies developed during the invasion, meanwhile - such as high-powered lasers, disintegrator weapons, and (most likely) compact high-energy power plants for military vehicles - would generally not be the sort to improve the lives of large numbers of people after the aliens' defeat.  As George Orwell observed of the atomic bomb, expensive new weapons would instead have the effect of strengthening large and militaristic countries at the expense of smaller ones.  Moreover, the diversion of scientists from other research paths during the war (R&D attempts in this game cost nearly 25% of the world's "industrial units," or about a trillion U.S. dollars) would stunt the development of other technologies we came to take for granted in our own world, like cell phones and the Worldwide Web.  In the post-invasion world, the Internet would remain crude and limited to military and government communication in the U.S.

The invasion would of course have thinned the world's population, possibly by hundreds of millions.  Given the aliens' limited numbers, many of the potential victims of their attack would have gotten away, but some would have subsequently died from lack of proper medical care, particularly once the atmospheric sulfur dioxide level rose and killed people with pre-invasion lung problems.  Moreover, the destruction of the developed world's resources would leave the survivors much poorer than before; many of the world's factories, ports, and rail hubs would be glass-lined craters, and many of its people would be refugees.  Even countries that escaped devastation would be worse-off in the 21st century than their real-world equivalents, because the export-led growth that lifted many of their people out of poverty in the 1990s and early 2000s would not have happened (due to depressed demand for imports in developed countries).  India, parts of Southeast Asia, and China would probably remain impoverished.

Finally, the invasion would have an intellectual impact, as humans realized they were no longer alone in the universe and that there were sophisticated and hostile intelligences lurking beyond the Solar System.  Perhaps the best analogue for how humans would deal with a deadly alien invasion would be the real-world reaction of indigenous peoples to European conquest in the 19th and 20th centuries.  In many cases indigenes responded to European invasion by developing chiliastic or millennial religious cults, such as the Ghost Dance in North America or Nongqawuse's cattle-killing movement in South Africa, which anticipated an imminent end-of-days with a better world afterward.  We might expect to see similar millennialism in a post-invasion world, akin to the Holyfolk movement in Jack Williamson's novel Lifeburst.

(Why "Flying Spaghetti Monsters"? Because the game's cover, reproduced above, featured an alien which strongly resembled an FSM, menacing fleeing refugees in early '80s leisure wear.  I suspect the model for the aliens in Invasion came from John Christopher's Tripods trilogy, whose alien Masters had similar physical features and similar goals.)