Monday, January 4, 2010

Book 8: The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

I never thought I'd say this, but this is one book that could be improved with a dumbed-down movie adaptation.

Let me explain.

I'm a fan of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's work. I remember discovering his novels at age 12 and getting lost in the worlds of "Rendezvous with Rama" and "Childhood's End." So when I saw this book at the library, I naturally picked it up. It's coauthored by Stephen Baxter, who is apparently a well-known name to science fiction readers (I'd never heard of him, but I'm always behind the times so that's no surprise).

The basic premise of the novel is what captured my interest. Hiram Patterson, the CEO of OurWorld, a major tech company in the year 2035, has discovered a way to create and use wormholes to instantly transmit information. Hiram is a greedy, manipulative genius who is mainly concerned with creating and keeping his vast empire. He's breeding his two sons, David and Bobby, to help him achieve his goals: David is a scientist who works on the wormhole technology, and Bobby is meant to one day take Hiram's place as the head of the company. It isn't long before the wormhole technicians discover that they can use the wormholes to transmit light i.e. to look at anything they want anywhere in the world. And from this development, they learn that they can look not just any WHERE but any WHEN - they're able to open wormholes that look back in time.

Imagine being able to watch Lincoln give his Gettysburg Address. Or to see for yourself just what life was like for Jesus of Nazareth. The whole world changes as they discover once and for all just how history REALLY happened. The "Worm Cams" also completely eradicate the idea of privacy - anyone can look at anyone else at any time they choose, without being seen (the wormholes are too small to be seen by the naked eye).

So the novel is full of interesting ideas. Unfortunately, there are too many ideas, and many are half-developed or abandoned along the way. I felt like the book was more Baxter than Clarke, just from having read a lot of Clarke's stuff before. I mean, Clarke was in his 80's when the book was published in 2000... how much could he really have collaborated?

The characters are poorly developed, the dialogue is stiff and mostly exposition, and the description of the science behind the wormholes is dense and difficult to follow. I managed to completely avoid taking any physics classes in high school or college (stuck to the biological sciences), and I never once regretted that decision... until I started reading this book. Entire pages of explanations blurred beneath my vision. I understand that quantum physics is a popular topic in some science fiction circles, but how much is necessary for the reader to understand in order to enjoy the story? I just need to know the wormholes are plausible; I don't need to know exactly how they work.

The ending of the novel introduces several interesting new developments in the wormhole technology and a new discovery in human history, but both feel rushed and almost out of place, like they were jammed in at the last minute. But why? Why throw interesting ideas in at the end and then not expand on them? And I haven't even gotten to the Wormwood plot yet. Scientists discover that a gigantic asteroid called the Wormwood is headed for Earth and will cause an extinction level event in the next 500 years. We're reminded of this Wormwood over and over and over throughout the book - humanity has become apathetic, people decide "well, it's all gonna end, so fuck it, let's do whatever we want," no one can figure out how to stop it - and then at the very end of the book, it's given literally a three sentence summation - and it's a casual aside that a character says.

I feel like there's so much I haven't mentioned, including a major character that serves as love interest for Bobby. Which brings me back to the idea that this could stand to be adapted for the big screen. Why do I say that? Because this novel could use a lot of simplification. I don't necessarily mean they need to dumb down the science (although that would help people like me out), I mean they need to cut some storylines and focus in on the good stuff.

But maybe I should be careful what I wish for. Next thing you know, they'll be Baynis all over this, and THEN what good would it be?

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Mel.
    I send you greetings from Argentina, having finished reading this wonderful book. And I say "wonderful", considering your points over the narration.
    As I was finishing, I figured me changing the narrative, to make it an ideal film, with a more correct form to tell this story (haughty pure mine).
    The only thing would be somewhat difficult to bring together the book's main events in a movie, are social issues that are described. That is: how the worm-cam change the society.
    But, you know, I think to "the hard science-fiction" this is it. Like this book. I have understood that the narrative belongs to Stephen Baxter, and the idea, and part of the development to Clarke.
    I think the books that belong to this type of genre, generally do not describe characters. But yes situations or phenomena (Those would be the characters in these books).
    The last great exploration with the worm-cam, reminded me "2001" when David Bowman enters in the monolith.
    Finally, your ability to synthesize is as good as my English is bad. I enjoyed reading you.