Thursday, August 1, 2013

Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

Most of the science fiction that I grew up reading was from the 50s-80s, and quite a bit of it featured hyperdrives, interstellar empires, and the uniqueness of humanity.  I guess it said something about the cultural mood of the time; most of it was written by men (and I do mean men) who figured they’d beaten the Axis and conquered the atom and that we’d get to the laws of space and time in due course.  Now that said, we live here in the year 2013 in an environment which is in many respects vastly more technologically advanced than the worlds proposed by some of these authors, but we remain distressingly Earthbound with nary a space empire in sight.  Perhaps as a response to this, perhaps for other reasons, there’s been a surge of stories about what happens when we just can’t get off this rock at all.

There are a couple of approaches to this.  Some of the SF examining this question simply involves humanity going extinct over time, but some other works deal with technological fixes.  Vortex is something along those lines.

Vortex is actually the third book in a trilogy, the first two being Spin and Axis (I refer to them as the “Angular Momentum Trilogy” but they may have a more official name, I don’t know.)  Spin was a Hugo Award winning novel and one I enjoyed quite a bit – the setup for that one was that one day, all of a sudden, the entire Earth gets enveloped in a membrane that separates the planet from local space-time, so that time is passing much, much faster outside the membrane than inside it.  It turns out that there are vast networks of computing machines in the depths of interstellar space and they do this to worlds with intelligent biological life.

As to what they do, it’s complicated.  The life cycle of tool-using intelligences is short compared to the Hypotheticals (as they are called by some of the humans, although they are very real) and in order to maximize the time they have available, the Hypotheticals use singularities to create warp gates and allow the biologicals to colonize other planets, something that is otherwise infeasible.  The Hypotheticals connect Earth to another planet (dubbed “Equatoria”) which is a great place to live.  There’s another gate on Equatoria that’ll take you to yet a third planet that people can live on, although it’s not quite so nice.  And another gate on that world as well.  It takes the Hypotheticals a couple of billion years to set all that stuff up though, which is why they use the time-disrupting membrane to allow them to finish this project.  And, I suppose, they’re doing this sort of thing all the time.

All of this is revealed by the end of Spin.  You may have noticed that missing from the above paragraph is the question of why the Hypotheticals go to so much trouble to help out alien intelligences that they barely know.  Well, first of all, it’s not clear so much that it’s a “favor” since you don’t exactly get to opt in to this project, it’s something that gets done whether you want it or not.  And it’s also not entirely clear that it’s for anyone’s benefit at all.  There’s a guy in Spin who finds out somewhat more than he wants to about the Hypotheticals, and a whole sort-of-cult in Axis that ends up not necessarily liking the answers they get either.

There are two parallel stories in Vortex, one of which follows Turk Findley, a major player in Axis who has been removed from the galaxy by the hypotheticals for the past 10,000 years.  The other story is more of a frame story and involves the planet Earth somewhat before the events of Axis, but after Spin.  And although it does tie the story together, I liked Findley’s bit much more, and will be discussing it more.

Findley finds himself disoriented and recovered by a group of people who believe that he’s been touched by the Hypotheticals and will be the key to what I guess I’d describe as apotheosis.  They also snag Isaac, a young boy who was packed to the gills with Hypothetical technology back in Axis and who’s also been gone.  So they head to Earth back through the gate despite the fact that no one’s been there in a while and things weren’t going so well when they were, and find that it’s been rendered inhospitable to human life.  Or, for that matter, multicellular life of any kind.  Effects of climate change due to burning all the fossil fuel reserves of both Earth and Equatoria; it seems that caused eutrophication on a massive scale, poisoning the seas and filling the atmosphere with hydrogen sulfide gas.  Pretty rough.

Now, this isn’t necessarily the end of humanity since there are still plenty of people left on the various other planets, but the question does arise as to why exactly the Hypotheticals would go to so much trouble to ensure that humanity has the opportunity to expand to other planets but do not take any action whatsoever to either prevent humanity from wrecking its planets, by either technological or more brute-force means.  The people that Findley has fallen in with originally believed that the whole point of the Hypothetical exercise was to eventually uplift humanity to god-like status, and this particular problem of evil sort of throws a wrench in that interpretation.

I would remind the reader that one possible solution to the problem of evil is that god is not omni-benevolent, though.

At the same time, the Hypotheticals aren’t mustache-twirling super villains, either.  They’re really above most of that nonsense, or possibly aren’t even capable of villainy as such.  Way back in Spin one of the characters explained that their computational networks are so vast and so necessarily slow that they had a hard time noticing or even comprehending the life of a single organism, and even that character didn’t really understand what they were doing.  Toward the end of Vortex we do finally get an explanation, of sorts, of what precisely the Hypotheticals are up to and why, and the last twenty or thirty pages of the book are amazingly grandiose and spectacular in the absolute finest tradition of SF.  Both the time scale and the epic scope are pretty awesome indeed.

That said, some of the middle portions of the book do kind of drag on a bit.  And as I said above, I didn’t necessarily enjoy the frame story that much, since it tended to get a little preachy at times.  Nonetheless, if you read Spin and enjoyed it, I’d say the last part of this one justifies the admission.

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