Previous Entry Add to Memories Share Next Entry
A very, very belated realization about A World Out of Time
james_nicoll
Peerssa, the rather nasty bureaucrat who manages Corbell during his training, has a copy of his mind beamed out to Corbell's hijacked starship in an attempt to salvage the terraforming mission. The thing is



the brain scanning process is explicitly said to be destructive: once it's done, you're left with a brain smoothy. For there to be a ship-Peerssa, the meat-Peerssa has to have died. I don't meat-Peerssa's death is even actually mentioned during the book but it's implied by the technology.

Do you think Peersa volunteered or was this his punishment for losing a starship?

Given how vindictive I remember the character Peerssa being presented as, I can see him volunteering for it.

Alternately, that might be why he's so vindictive, both before, because he knows the stakes are his body, and after, because he's bitter.

It's been a long time since I read the book, but although the natives were said to be long-lived, it could have been both.

Suppose Peersa was under threat of death for losing the starship--he was going to be broken up for the organ banks anyway, or some other Nivenesque punishment--he might have volunteered to ensure that something survived. (And it would give him a parallelism with Corbell that I quite like and don't remember from the original book, so it's probably not there.)

I think it's pretty clearly implied that it's the latter.

Also, the State seems very much like the sort of organization that would have to punish /someone/. And beaming Peerssa into the starship fits neatly into the State's general MO of cold-blooded parsimony.


Doug M.


punishment. but it's been awhile since I read it.

I think you're making a fun observation. On the other hand, I think everything we know about the technology of the state comes from what Peersa says to Corbell. Peersa says he has no reason to lie since Corbell will either be brainwiped or launched out of the system, but Peersa's interaction with Corbell involves psychological testing, so he does have reason to lie. Also: there is a sharp disparity between the way Corbell and his peers are treated and the technological achievements of the State, so there is some reason to think that technology used for the likes of Corbell might be substandard, and better technology is available to the elite.

For that matter, from that angle Peersa also has no reason to tell Corbell the truth about anything that he won't be seeing anyhow. So, he can be trusted on the fact that Corbell has a new body, but not on where it came from; for all we actually know, they grow them in tanks. Similarly, that there are densely populated settlements on Earth, but not about any part of Earth we don't see. The ramjet control system, yes; background about the mission, maybe not.

This also suggests that the computer personality that has been beamed into the ship may not be Peersa. It may be some experimental AI, handed a bit of overlay of "your name is thus-and-such" and Peersa's voice put into the voder/vocoder system.

I'm not sure the State even considers that punishment, so much as a requirement that he finish the job one way or another.

The brain scanning process that's used for Corbell is basically RNA extraction. You couldn't beam the result into a computer, so that can't be the process that was used for Peerssa.

That would be one way to retcon it: multiple passes over time of a live subject vs. a one-shot for what would be essentially a (briefly)reanimated corpse. Another way would be to note the choice of words: Peersa says his personality was beamed aboard. This suggests some sort of detailed model was cooked up; not that Peerssa was scanned to make an isomorphic copy. Note also that unlike Pierce, Peerssa has to obey Corbell's commands, which suggests that even if we're working off of a scanned copy, significant alterations have been made.

Since Corbell was stuffed into the body of a mind-wiped criminal, does that mean that Peerssa's body was free for use by The State for someone else?

If it works that way (you can move a mind from body to body but not copy one) I can imagine a whole silly hierarchy of bodies for bureaucrats. You got a promotion? Cool, here's a nicer body. You got demoted? Sorry, we need your body for someone else, you're going to have to transfer into that criminal with the nasty scar.

(I was wondering why this story sounded familiar when I knew the only Niven books I've read involve either ringworlds or moties: I read the short story it was based on, years ago.)

Punishment. And it fits the crime perfectly.

Speaking parenthetically, I find A World Out Of Time annoyingly cool in a boys-own-adventure kind of way, even though just about every scientific/technological mcguffin in it has been blown apart, shredded, and jumped up and down on in hobnailed boots by posterity -- except for the ones he didn't bother to justify by even the flimsiest appeal to then-current scientific knowledge (teleport booths). I mean, we have: Bussard ramjets, stratospheric algae seeding to terraform venusiform worlds, monolithic communist dictatorships as a sociological climax species, mashed-up RNA memory transplants, planetary engineering via the most preposterous Velikovsky-with-nukes mechanism imaginable, and a barkingly wrong vision of a globally-warmed earth. All it needs to be perfect is, oh, phrenology, 'scientific' racism, and psi powers. Right?

(And the late-sixties/early-seventies sexism and gender politics are kind of icky, too.)

So why the hell do I still like the book, and periodically re-read it?

One of these days I want to give it the Saturn's Children treatment ...

Edited at 2009-11-17 05:36 pm (UTC)

The society with a ten-to-one gender imbalance in favor of women, and they have a special festival where they crave cock?

I picture Joanna Russ making a special voodoo doll of Niven, and then driving over it, back and forth.

That, and the whole "Boys vs. Girls" thing gives her incentive to drive very slowly.

Yes, but that's totally balanced by the one female character who's competent, and so terrifying. And who uses a sex pheromone perfume to seduce Corbell, but then is annoyed that she had to.

...upon consideration, she was maybe the strongest and most interesting female character Niven ever wrote. Which makes it interesting that Corbell spends the middle half of the book running away from her in abject terror.


Doug M.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
Smoke Ring (Anonymous) Expand
A World Out Of Time was fun as a travelogue (as was Saturn's Children itself, for that matter, and Friday, IIRC)

Velikovsky-with-nukes seems like a big improvement over the original! What do you think was so preposterous about it? The scale of the rocket seemed like a stretch, of course. Do you think the rocket couldn't push against the deeper parts of Uranus' atmosphere without destroying itself?

For those who don't want to dig up their copy of the book, here's a description of how the rocket works:

"It's a double-walled tube, very strong under expansion shock. It floats vertical in the upper air. Vents at the bottom let in the air, which is hydrogen and methane and ammonia, hydrogen compounds, like the air that the sun burns. You fire laser cannon up along the axis, using a color hydrogen won‘t let through. You get a fusion explosion along the axis, and the explosion goes out and up. The whole mass blasts out the top, through the flared end. It has to have an exhaust velocity way higher than Uranus's escape velocity. The motor goes smashing down into deeper air. You see there's a kind of flared skirt at the bottom. The deep air builds up there at terrific pressure, stops the tube and blasts it back up. You fire it again... The atmosphere is fuel and shock absorber both -- and the planet is mostly atmosphere."
(Copied from http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/vida_alien/xenology/19.0.htm which only slightly edits Niven's original wording.)

The idea of using a rocket on a gas giant is itself the preposterous bit. (Consider the pressure in the throat of that tube when it rams a few thousand kilometres down into a fricking gas giant! How many megaPascals are we talking, trying to tear the flared skirt apart? What kind of unobtanium is it made of?)

Much simpler (hah!) to break up a moon into lots of solar-sail powered masses and use them as a gravity tug.

The giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way holds up well. I would not have bet on that at the time of publication. (Surviving a close passage around the black hole in an adequately-sturdy space vessel is another matter, of course.)

I do not recall what mass Niven gives his hole; I have heard an estimate of 4 million solar masses for the real thing.

Possibly because you know that having reality overtake the science is the occupational hazard inevitability of the SF writer. And because everyone loves gonzo science. And for all that Niven is perceived as a dinosaur by all the bright young things, he does spin a good yarn.

spin a good yarn

(Anonymous)

2009-11-17 09:17 pm (UTC)

Did, past tense. I challenge you to find a good yarn Niven has spun in the last twenty years.

If he had retired from writing in 1979, we would have spent the last thirty years holding sad little meetings at cons like Barry Malzberg fans used to do, or speculating about all the wonderful stuff he would surely have written like Alexei Panshin fans used to... well, actually, a few of them still do, and Panshin's written almost nothing since about 1972. But anyway. It would be like that, only more so.

But instead we have to hold his early stuff in one hand -- which, crappy science and sexism notwithstanding, includes some pretty frickin' awesome yarns indeed -- and in the other hand, we have to balance The Gripping Hand, Destiny's Road, The Burning City, Fallen Angels, and The Ringworld Throne.

I find that just painful. As I've said elsewhere, it's a bit like visiting a former teacher you used to like and respect back in high school, and finding he's been hit with early-onset Alzheimer's and can't feed himself or leave the house. It's that type of sad.


Doug M.


It's simple: "A World Out Of Time", for all its faults, is packed full of wild and crazy science-fiction stuff, to a degree few SF novels are. It's just one crazy-ass idea after another, like Niven is daring himself to top that one.

In a way it's like a really druggy Phil Dick novel, say "Galactic Pot-Healer", or maybe a Rudy Rucker, except that Niven's trying to project the illusion that this stuff is scientifically justified. I love this kind of writing unreasonably, as long as the prose is more or less competent. "World of Ptaavs" is another one of his with the same deranged buzz.

Sorry, "Ptavvs".

It occurs to me that "A World Out Of Time" was the first State novel (incorporating the first State story), and "World of Ptavvs" was the first Known Space novel (though not the first Known Space story). Maybe there was something about breaking in a whole new universe at novel length that got Niven's creativity going.

Corbell has already been lied to about the coldsleep, so it's easy to believe that a nondestructive brain scan would be above his security clearance.

My sense of that state, was they wouldn't personify their citizens enough to bother with that kind of a punishment.

Plus, there would have been enough time in the voyage for the state to have let Pierce die of natural causes before slushing his brain.

If I thought about it at all, I think Pierce himself was unaware of that kind of brain scan until the escape. The nondestructive scan takes daily sessions over several decades, which they have. He continues his work as usual, but also goes in for daily shallow brain scans.

Except non-destructive brainscans implies a different evolution of the State after Corbell's mutiny. Also, I don't recall it taking that long to beam Peersa to the starship; a matter of weeks, I thought, and that was down to the amount of data having to be transmitted. Although I don't have a copy available, and it's been a while since I read it.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand