Book recommendo??? Book recommendo! - The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter.

Huh? Book? Sure! Book! In case you're confused, hang in there, because this book kind of makes sense with P.A.G!'s occasional flirting with having a theme. Often, when we talk about old technology or products, fun questions to ask are things like "What do past events suggest about our future?" We love to laugh about silly old tech, but what current gadgets will we be laughing at in twenty years' time?

The lines that we could use to chart the progress of technology in our lives rarely make sharp bends. Gentle arcs can be traced from "big clunky computers that fill a room" through a push pin where we are now with "pocket computers that do a hundred things for us", and on to the near future of "tiny, barely noticeable computers doing tons of things, almost invisibly"... for better or worse. Yes, occasionally science and commercialism can make sharp turns that we don't see coming, but in general, you can kind of look behind us and then look forward and have a pretty good idea where things will be soon.

This is what really good Sci-Fi does. There are two kinds of Science Fiction; escapism and "Hard Sci-Fi". Hard Sci-Fi is rooted firmly in existing technology, and if it's doing it's job right, asks really compelling questions about the human race. Some of the giants of hard Sci-Fi are Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, and Arthur C. Clarke. Hard Sci-Fi is harder to write, since it's not a bunch of made up silliness. Authors like this tend to be almost scary smart.

The Light of Other Days. Forgive the terrible, generic cover. Earth, seen from orbit? Check. Five seconds worth of Photoshop lens flare filter? Check. Author's name in massive letters, as if that's all you care about? Big fat check. Ugh. Yeah, please ignore all of that. The cover really lets the book down.

The light of other days, despite being written in 2000, and based on a short story from 1966, deals with a theme that makes it feel like a recent release: technology and the end of privacy.

Plot summary, without spoiling too much.

The premise, in a nutshell, is this: the development of a "wormhole camera" allows scientists to see over long distances instantaneously. The technology is crude at first, allowing only foggy images to be sent across continents from the present time, but as the technology and the story progress over the span of a few years, the "worm cam" eventually allows anyone, anywhere, to instantly see and hear anything from any point in history, anywhere in the universe. Crime is virtually eliminated, religions are forced to reexamine their assumptions, and a generation grows up with the idea of privacy as a totally foreign concept.

Yes, but.

Yes, the novel uses the Sci-Fi trope of "wormholes" to get the story going, but the gradual development of the worm cam research over a span of years keeps it from feeling silly. Initially, a research team funded by a huge technology company just barely manages to receive a grainy image from a partner lab across the globe. Later, they manage to transmit larger and clearer images. Then, they figure out how to control the movement of the worm cam. Then, they figure out the sound problem. Now you can hear, too. Then, realizing that time and space are one and the same material (big tip of the hat to Einstein), they learn how to view eighty minutes into the past, instead of eighty light minutes into space. Then, before long, Pandora's box is opened and all of the past and present are free for the viewing.

Over the years, the machinery required to produce this feat of science is reduced from a major research facility to a service that runs in a web browser, making it something you can just wear in your glasses. All the while, corporate espionage and legal battles create a backdrop for massive cultural shifts as the technology trickles out to governments, news outlets, and eventually, consumers. If your neighbor floating a quad-copter with a video camera over your back yard seems weird, imagine anybody with a spare two hundred bucks invisibly looking down at you (or worse yet, up at you) as you visit the bathroom. At that point in the book, there are a lot of people having sex in the dark. Apparently, they figured out how to see across time and space, but only in the visible spectrum of light.

As with any story created by very smart people, there are almost no eye-rolling moments that throw you out of the story with their silliness... apart from that thing about not seeing in the dark. It's all pretty water tight, once the idea of "wormholes of probability stabilized from quantum foam" can be accepted in the first couple of chapters. Essentially, it hooks the reader with the simple question "What if this one little thing happened?".


There are characters! As with other books by Arthur C. Clarke, he does his very best to create complex, sympathetic characters for you to identify with. Honest. They have motivations and everything! However, they are there only to give the story something to revolve around. The main characters are comprised of the megalomaniacal CEO of the company that develops the worm cam, his two sons that work for him, and a journalist that leaks the story to the world. We follow their family dramas and romances as we skip across the years to follow the story. Oh yeah, the CEO had his son's brain modified during childhood to make him a "perfect heir" to the family legacy. A third of the way into the story, the guy has the brain implant deactivated and gets his brain back for the first time in his life at the age of thirty-something. Just a side note.

 However, the real stars of the show are the ideas put forth in the premise of the book. To put it another way, the whole of humanity is the real main character, as it struggles to figure out what the hell to do now that everyone knows everything.

The characters didn't completely draw me in, but it is also possible that the characters were perfectly fine and fascinating on their own, but that they were just upstaged by the more fascinating weirdness of the story. It may be my own fault I didn't connect with them. In any case, the characters are probably fine. I was more obsessed with humanity in general. I'm not sure I've ever felt that before. Ick. Someone help me, I'm human.


The Light of Other Days is a compelling sociological experiment first, and a realistic Sci-Fi drama second. It feels about thirty years further along in our own future. Don't read it unless you're curious about that for some reason.

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Michelle_Randy said...

Awesome recommendation. Adding it to my Goodreads now. I haven't read Clarke in a long time, but he was one I started with back in the day.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

I first read this book about six years ago, but just started re-reading it in the past week. It has that feeling of "This is awfully timely. Was it just released?"

I hope you like it!


Ian Simmons said...

Now, that's a hell of a first book review! You should receive a commission check from the Clarke estate in about two weeks, 'cause you've sold me on reading this thing!

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