Friday 1 July 2011

A World Out Of Time by Larry Niven

A treat for Niven fans - two helpings in consecutive weeks! It's a long time since I read this 1976 book and I had forgotten what it was about, so when several members of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group said they were reading it I decided to join in.

Set in a different and grimmer future from his famous Known Space milieu, A World Out Of Time starts with the reawakening after 200 years of a "corpsicle" - a terminally ill man who had voluntarily been frozen in 1970 in the hope that a cure for his cancer would be found later. Only he hasn't awakened in his own body - ironically, while his cancer was now curable, the cell damage caused by the freezing process was not - but has had his personality and memories reconstituted in the body of a young criminal whose own personality had been wiped from his brain as a punishment.

The man (called Jerome Branch Corbell - a reference to the cult fantasy writer James Branch Cabell?) soon discovers that his survival hangs by a thread. If he does not demonstrate his usefulness, he will also be wiped from his host body and replaced by another corpsicle: the planet-wide State is ruthlessly utilitarian. He tests favourably for the post of a rammer - a Bussard ramjet pilot - and is duly dispatched on a solo mission to seed promising planets with the elements of Earth-like life. He has his own agenda, however, and decides to visit the galactic core.

I can't say much more about the plot without spoilers, so at this stage I'll just say that the novel is vintage Niven and I really enjoyed reading it again. If you want to find out about it for yourself then stop reading NOW!


Corbell's journey is plagued by a downloaded version of Peersa, his new "mentor", in his computer, constantly nagging him to do what the State wants. Corbell remains in control, however, and decides to circle the huge Black Hole in the galactic core before returning to earth. Due to a time-dilation effect three million years have passed for the Earth, but only a small fraction of that for Corbell. Nonetheless, even spending most of the time in cold-sleep, Corbell is an old man before his journey is over.

What he then discovers is a Solar System drastically changed. The Sun is bloated and very hot, and the Earth has been moved into orbit around Jupiter. On landing, Corbell discovers the remnants of a strange civilisation ruled by immortal Boys, whose immortality is achieved by freezing their physical development before puberty. There are also some adult humans kept as breeding stock, and one other traveller who captures Corbell - an old woman who is desperate to find the secret of an earlier form of immortality. The race is on to evade the Boys and find the ancient immortality secret.

This is a fast-paced thriller packed with interesting ideas, typical of the author in this period. Also typical is that the characterisation is not strong, but it's good enough to carry the story. I like the casual way in which Niven introduces unusual elements in the background, for example the way in which people paid little attention to hygiene in the crowded future world, washing and deodorants apparently having gone out of fashion. I remain dubious, however, that anything resembling humanity will still be around in three million years: I suspect that we will either have become extinct or evolved ourselves into something entirely different by then.

To sum up, a novel which all Niven fans will enjoy, and it can also be recommended to readers new to SF who want a fast, entertaining read, as it will painlessly stretch their imaginations .


Carl V. Anderson said...

So glad you enjoyed it. Despite my willingness at this point in life to admit that there are certainly more complex and better written books, this remains a favorite. It thrilled my early-adolescent mind and I continue to find it a good, quick adventure science fiction read. Corbell is an entertaining narrator. I like the mixture of the science fictional elements of the story with the 'lost world' setting. While I too don't think the world would be that recognizable after 3 million years, it is still entertaining to think about, and was especially so the first time I read it.

This is one I also recommend for new science fiction readers. It has enough "science fiction" in it to give then a taste of the genre with enough of the standard, man on the run, motif that the average person will be able to relate to the story because they've seen or read it before.

Bill Garthright said...

Interesting, Tony. I don't own the book, and I don't remember reading it, but I must have at some point. Certainly, parts of your review seem very familiar.

I'll have to keep an eye out for a copy. Of course, I've got way too many unread - or unremembered, at least - books as it is...

Anthony G Williams said...

Haven't we all, Bill!

Dr Evil said...

I loved Protector. It was also interesting to read Ringworld and Ringworld Engineers. It was very hard for LN to reconcile Known Space with the Pak. LN was one of my early faves when a student back in the 70s.

Anthony G Williams said...

I've never thought about the problem of reconciling the Pak with Known Space, but I can see that might have caused problems.

Dr Evil said...

Niven said this himself. He had created Known space and the Pak simply didn't fit. Pity, because the premise for the Pak was excellent.