Wordy Wednesday – A World Out of Time by Larry Niven

Yes, excellent! I got hooked on Niven with Ringworld a while ago, and A World Out of Time is just as good. Maybe better. Well, no, not better. Less good. That’s what I was looking for.

A man from the 1970s, Corbell, has himself frozen. He hopes that in the future there will be a cure for his cancer. But he is woken up in a new body by The State, a world-wide government that needs someone to pilot a seed-ship to new worlds and, well, seed them with packages of algae to help stabilize the atmospheres on the planets. It’s a long-range plan to populate the galaxy with humans.

Corbell is having none of it.

First, The State teaches him how to pilot an interstellar spaceship. They use RNA injections, which speeds the rate at which he learns new information. The State views Corbell almost as property – after all, they brought him back to life and gave him a new body. He owes them.

Corbell, of course, was hoping to wake up in a different future, one where he could basically resume his old ways of life. Instead, he is put through rigorous physical and mental testing, and then expected to carry out a mission that will take him hundreds of years. When he comes back again, he will likely still be under the rule of The State.

So, when they give him the ship, The State believes they have properly conditioned Corbell. They haven’t, of course, and instead of following the course he should, Corbell lights off in his Bussard ramjet for the galactic core.

Traveling in style with a Bussard ramjet.

By the time he gets back, three million years have passed, and even with cryogenic sleep, Corbell is an old man.

The novel does a good job setting up the premise – how long can an empire last? Can a world-wide empire ever fall, without interference from outsiders? What about when the empire becomes a galactic empire? It takes us towards some of the possibilities facing humanity in general, which is generally what I like in sci-fi.

Then again, the novel is only so-so when it comes to the writing. The descriptions are heavy-handed and dry, and I never felt like I got to know future-Earth. On the other hand, the people who live there are okay. They’ve got motivations, beliefs, and Niven puts in some decent twists and turns.

There are other problems, however. Much of the second half of the novel is occupied with a search for an immortality drug. But from the time Corbell is awoken by The State, they already have the means to get immortality – they can clone people and then use personality transfers to put their old minds in the new bodies. I mean, that’s kind of a roundabout way to do it, but the immortality drug is just for the ruling class of The State’s water-monopoly empire.

Additionally, I would have loved to see how The State actually operated when they first wake up Corbell. What is their society like? Are there rebellious factions? How do they use technology to maintain control? The State, as a water-monopoly empire, could last for thousands of years, maybe hundreds of thousands. But they are trying to control a resource that literally falls from the sky. How do they keep control in tropical regions, where precipitation is plentiful? Are they just constantly at war there?

I mean, The State may well control all the dams and rivers and lakes, all the freshwater sources, but if their society can clone people and transfer a mind from body to body, surely someone has a way to safely store rainwater for weeks or months at a time without it getting contaminated. I guess I just don’t buy that any government could have such complete control without some group getting all up in arms. Maybe I would if we saw how The State operates, but we really don’t.

BEHOLD! The power of The State is broken!

We see none of it. In fact, there are a ton of interesting questions that just get ignored. But some of the big ideas at the end are just as interesting. It’s a difficult balance, I think, when you’re dealing with millions of years of history.

Overall, A World Out of Time is a decent sci-fi story, but it doesn’t reach the heights of, say, A Canticle for Leibowitz or the Hyperion books. Don’t bother with it unless you just want some action and don’t have anything else on hand.


About seansynthetic

"...so I says the the guy, I says to him, 'No, YOU ain't allowed back into this Chuck-E-Cheese.'"

Posted on September 26, 2012, in Wordy Wednesdays and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I found the State to be an incomplete idea – sketched out just enough to form a backdrop, but not too much that we could start poking holes in it. Or at least big holes. Me, I never bought the idea that the State could survive human corruption. They could call the special privileges they allowed individuals ‘a benefit’ for service to the State, but if the corrupt people always rose to the top (and they do), then they make the rules. And the behavior that dictators like is not necessarily the behavior that will tend to preserve the State.

    Like Orwell’s ‘1984’, the nightmare vision of the State, ironically, requires the unending services of exactly those kinds of people who are most likely to cause its collapse.

    • Yeah, I think that’s what Niven was going for – a distant threat that he didn’t have to detail closely. I believed in the State, because I imagined it as a highly technological bureaucracy that could continue to function as intended without much human assistance. I saw it as a rigid society, and even if corrupt people rose to power, they wouldn’t want to unbalance things too much. Even if they did want to, there would be all this inertia from the other facets of the society.

      But, again, I agree with you. It was a bit incomplete.

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