Murder in deep time: Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime

Marooned in Realtime (Tor Books, 1986) is many things. It’s the book that introduces the idea of the Singularity—and that’s why I’ve been re-reading it, in advance of a Singularity panel at Anticipation. Then it’s a mystery novel, in which a detective who isn’t as famous as everyone thinks he is, has to solve a mystery that took place literally geological ages ago. It’s a book about deep time and evolution and intelligence. It’s also the sequel to The Peace War. The Peace War is a fairly standard SF novel that introduces one technological innovation, “bobbles” that create an impenetrable mirrored sphere around a piece of space. They’ve been used (mainly to control the planet) but not understood, and the book is about the process of understanding them. Talking about Marooned in Realtime at all beyond that requires huge spoilers for The Peace War, so since everyone seems to be very sensitive about spoilers, let’s have a spoiler break here.

Time is stopped inside the bobbles. By Marooned in Realtime, people have been using the bobbles for all kinds of things for a long time, and then everyone suddenly disappeared in a Singularity except for the people inside bobbles at the time. When they come out, the world is pretty empty except for them and whatever they’ve brought with them. Some of them, from quite different times, have banded together to make a settlement that’s going forward together (in bobbles) to when everyone will be out of their long term bobbles and there will be enough humans to have a community.

There are several brilliant things about it. The first is that Wil Brierson was a policeman who was bobbled by a criminal in the course of a crime, and wound up far in the future. After his bobbling but before his recovery, his son, who he remembers as a child, wrote a series of books featuring him as a detective. Everyone born later therefore thinks he’s a famous detective, which he never was, or asks him about his son. This is lovely. Then there’s the interesting confusion of having people from different times and tech levels, with the natural resentments that causes. (“Lo Tech don’t mean no Tech.”) All the people are from our future, of course, but some of them are from each other’s past, and some of them are historically notorious people. Then there’s the investigation of the murder—Marta has been murdered by being left out of the bobble. She lived to die of old age while everyone else made a leap through time without her.

What makes the book so re-readable is the diary Marta writes when alone on the empty Earth of the future. It’s fascinating, and it’s tragic—Vinge is good at tragedy—and it’s the key to the question of who murdered her. I never get tired of it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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