Sunday, February 01, 2015

One future diverting another

kw: book reviews, science fiction, science fantasy, near-future, dystopias

Concerning time travel, one would have the same question that Enrico Fermi did about Martians or other aliens visiting Earth: "Where is everybody?" In The Peripheral, William Gibson finesses this in a milieu where contact across time is possible but difficult, and thus limited and easier to conceal. Here we find also a future, late 22nd Century so far as I can determine, with a much lower population, and a very, very small number who can afford to pursue cross-time contact as a hobby. Also, conveniently, early in the novel we read that the earliest date that can be contacted is some time in the 2020s. The mechanism is a new kind of virtual reality system, with a server "somewhere in China". More than this is left a mystery.

What is a "peripheral"? Computer-savvy folks think of printers, external hard drives, game controllers,…all the things you might attach to a computer (or tablet or phone, these days) except the external monitor. Somehow screens aren't thought of as peripherals. In the novel, "peripheral" is reserved for robots and (Gibson doesn't use the word) androids that someone can inhabit virtually, via a special brain-contact headset that wraps around at forehead level.

I have minimal interest in the plot. Suffice it to say that the protagonists are one Flynne Fisher, a young woman in about the year 2110, and Wilf Netherton, a middle-aged man living some 75± years later. In Flynne's era, there is something like an advanced Skype machine on wheels, like a Segway with a screen and cameras on a stalk at head level. Devices like this are currently called telepresence robots, and enable someone a certain limitedly mobile presence at a distance. Presumably they'll be a lot better by 2110 or so. After a further seven decades, the technology of choice is a genetically human animaloid with neither brain nor alimentary canal (they are fed intravenously). In place of a brain, there is an AI that can manage the body when not in use, and interface electronics for its use. For tasks needing great strength or small size, various "homunculi" are used similarly.

Thus, Flynne gets to visit the future by inhabiting a peripheral that is a fully-functional young woman who looks similar to her, but cannot eat (and doesn't eliminate either). Wilf gets to visit the past in a telepresence robot. As it happens, Flynne is very fortunate that her brother is a former Special Forces (or something similar) soldier, with lots and lots of friends who are very, very good with weapons; Wilf is well-connected with an English-born Russian gajillionaire and his "klept". Think of a klept as a crime family with ambitions to grow into a kleptocratic government.

The plot hinges on a murder that Flynne witnessed while monitoring what she thought was a video game. As the only witness, she is targeted by future assassins who can only work by offering millions to folks in her time who will kill her. The future folk who contact her include a mysterious police inspector of great age, and members of the klept, who finance the search for the original killer. Of course, the killer will be fingered and dealt with, along with certain other evil folk. Other than that, there is remarkably little killing.

William Gibson is a master of high-tech future dystopian world-building. With The Peripheral he has crafted two dystopias, with the worse one attempting to avert their own fate for the other. I ought to mention another time-contact concept: first contact between someone in, say, 2085 with someone in 2010 splits off a "stub", which is now affected by that contact and develops differently without changing the future that is doing the contacting. Believe me, this is less of a mental conundrum than we usually find in "time travel" literature! (Most of it seems to be written just to set up, then solve, such conundrums.) Thus, it is possible for Wilf and his group to help Flynne and her group avoid "the jackpot" that led to the world he inhabits.

This "jackpot" is one of the intriguing ideas in the book. It is described not as a single catastrophic event, but a decades-long tangle of co-synergistic "slow disasters" (only global warming is presented as an example) that end up reducing human population to around 10% of what it was before. This is sufficiently plausible to be chilling.

The univere-splitting function of cross-time contact is another. At one point someone muses whether the contact initiates a split, or if quantum universe splits occur frequently and the cross-time function can only occur between worlds on different world-lines. This is in accord with the popular "many worlds" interpretation of quantum theory. The most extreme version has every quantum "choice", everywhere, triggering a split into two or more universes, depending on how many possible outcomes the quantum event could have. If Richard Feynman's "virtual particle sea" interpretation of quantum electrodynamics is true, and quantum universe-splitting is also true, then new universes are created at the rate of about 1024 per second per cubic femtometer of space. That is universe creation at a rate, per second, that is a number with roughly 500 digits. And people think this is more reasonable than my belief in God!!! "Stub" creation by intentional action is tons more reasonable than any "many worlds" theory I've read about. And Gibson nicely pushes off any such splitting into the future by a century or so. I found myself wondering whether the plot would twist into next-level contact, when someone from, say the middle 2200s contacts either Wilf or Flynne. Maybe it is something Gibson will take up later, except he is probably busy building another world instead just now.

I've already discussed the technology of "peripherals" a little. It is very reminiscent of the Avatar technology of the film Avatar. I kept wondering if this novel would end similarly, with Flynne's peripheral being replaced by one that can eat, and her getting stuck in it in the future, say because her body dies in her own time. Gibson had another idea, and a better one.

In the Flynne time frame, the technology of the day is "fabbing" using 3D printers of roughly a century in our future. In the Wilf time frame they use "assemblers", nanotechnology devices by the quadrillions. In one scene, a blocking wall just seems to appear. I had to step back and think about that. Where did the material come from? What about the energy? Even if this kind of "assembling" is not breaking and making chemical bonds, the particles being assembled will still be subject to van der Waals forces. vdW forces are what make glue work, and they facilitate the zipping and unzipping of DNA. But even assembly relying only on vdW forces requires energy. So much energy that, while the wall might be able to "arrive" in a second of time, its temperature would be a few thousand degrees. A different application of assembling, that brings a weapon into Flynne's hand through solid rock, would use at least as much energy as melting the rock. Her hand would be burnt off to the shoulder. This point in particular is why I added the tag "science fantasy" to the metadata.

No matter how hard or soft the science is in a science fiction novel, its enjoyment requires the suspension of disbelief. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Then, I enjoyed speculating on the ideas presented here just as much. I am not pointing out errors, but confronting the concepts with physics as we know it today. Many of our devices would seem magical to people of Ben Franklin's time. We know some physics that was not known then. The physics of 200 years to come could advance a similar amount. Maybe there's a way to shift a vdW bond, or even a covalent bond, using much less energy than the break-plus-make procedure we must use today. I love Gibson's writing. His dystopias are more hopeful than most.

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