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Inspector Wil Brierson has a lot on his plate. Besides attempting to solve the murder of a leading citizen, he's also after who shanghaied him millions of years into the future. Then there's what happened to the human race around the twenty-third century, leaving about 300 known survivors. Everybody has a theory, an alibi, a pet ideology, a colorful background, and lots and lots of high-tech devices that are barely comprehensible and always fascinating when introduced to the read. It's as Wil ponders, "Damn. In this real world, almost anything could be true" (Baen Books, ISBN 0671656473, 1st PB printing 1987, p.177).
The gee whiz! ingredient is the bobbles. Introduced two years before in Vinge's The Peace War, they are impervious force-fields that can advance independently into the future. In the previous work, they were used to enslave, fight, and eventually end the war. Now, they are applied to find anybody alive past the twenty-third century. Since time is a one-way flow, the remaining humans travel 50 million years into the future gathering other bobblers. Size-wise, what remains is more a cul-de-sac than a suburb. Other-wise, humanity is predictably divided into social, political, and affluence factions, since the time of their departure determines the level of technology they possess. Anotherwords-wise, some are watching Lost in Space—yes, there is a family named Robinson, but they're not Swiss—on 8mm projectors while others see it in HD-DVD format.
The plot igniter comes when a key sparkplug is marooned in realtime and therefore murdered. As the refugees move forward, leading organizer and self-appointed savior of the community Marta Korolev is left un-bobbled. One of the most riveting and haunting parts of the novel is reading sections of her diary found one-hundred years later, detailing her 40 years Carusoing a planet that is both cathedral and catacomb. The ensuing investigation drives the rest of the story.
Vinge is spilling over with ideas. He's like a child tempting you with his toybox. As a result, the High-Teckkies develop as more representative of ideologies and reactionary consequences than human characters. Monica as pessimism personified; Juan the paranoid; Tammy as hedonism with a Golightly allure; Philippe the Nazi. And the gadgets are addictive: autons that hover overhead acting as bodyguards, medical staff, and Einsteins all in one; the Encyclopedia Britannica and all your Kodak moments weaved in a headband for instantaneous access; doohickeys known as the Laurentian Shield, the Tipler Cylinder, and the Wachendon Suppressor apparently so advanced as to be unexplainable. There are also pseudo-scientific predictive condensations like "during the last two thousand years of civilization, almost every measure of progress showed exponential growth . . . [but] real growth eventually saturates" (p.127), or poetic flits on humanity's obsession with recording data, as "here was a place where no sparrow could fall unremarked" (p.6).
Sometimes, Vinge uses his scientific phantasms like asphalt to fill in the potholes of his story—how else could he write in Wil's hijacker showing up 50 megayears down the road with only 300 other humans in the whole universe?—but mostly they are thoughtful signposts regarding the dilemmas of progress without losing compassion. He carefully sets up his counter arguments through his minor characters, then subtlety proves them false by the actions of the novel. For instance, caviar and champagne aside, the Robinsons are really philosophers questing to the end of time itself where "all the mysteries people have ever wondered on . . . may be revealed there." Tammy Robinson calls it "the ultimate rendezvous for all thinking beings" (p.53). But it misplaces the individual's debt to the species until that larger problem is solved at the novel's conclusion. Then, the Robinsons are welcomed to recruit from humanity's now-established outpost.
But the largest quandary—and the most interesting—surround the character of Della Lu. At nine-thousand years old and mankind's aerospace Goddess, she's as smart as Univac and as cute as Twiggy. She is the novel's Athena heroine and savior, yet considered by many to be a monster and non-human. "She shifts personalities like clothes, as though she's trying to find something that fits" (p.95), says Artemis-like Yelen, another strong female and the grieving lover of murdered Marta. As the mouthpiece for the Singularity—that perplexing, pet theory where "extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied . . . [yet] those new models are beyond our intelligence" (p.128)—she throws down the biggest clues for Earth's precipitous sinking of sapience.
By inserting a who-dun-it mystery format into the what-if science fiction genre, Vinge deftly handles his themes, plots and ponderances with novelistic artistry while combining scientific methodology, theory, and observance. Ambiguities abound—as does logical research and explanation—to create a multi-leveled journey not free from bumps and stumblings, but engrossing enough to seek out further mappings.