Charting humanity's future history

A World Out of Time (Audio) - Larry Niven, Tom Weiner

There are a number of science-fiction books around where the author attempts to chart the future history, in a speculative manner of course, of humanity. Isaac Asimov does that in his Foundation universe (which begins with the Robot stories and ends with Foundation and Earth) and Larry Niven does the same thing with A World Out of Time. The theme that I see in this idealistic setting is how humanity can create the perfect society in the perfect world. This is the ultimate goal of the Asimov books, however it seems to have turned out differently with Niven. What we have is the development of humanity to three million years in the future, and with every step forward they take at least two steps backwards.

The story is based around a man named Corbell. He died of cancer in the 70s and before he died he had his body frozen in the belief that in the future, when they found a way to cure him, they could unfreeze him. Unfortunately the technology of the 70s (and even now) meant that that was never going to happen because as soon as you unfreeze the body the cells are irrevocably destroyed (actually the act of freezing the body inevitably destroys them). What they have managed to do is to extract his personality and implant it into the body of a criminal, whose mind has been wiped, and then send him on a mission to seed potential worlds with the anticipation of colonising them in the future. However, Corbell has different ideas, and deciding that he doesn't like the world in which he has awoken, turns the ship around and flies into the centre of the galaxy.

The scene where he travels through the centre of the galaxy is by far my favourite, even though it is highly speculative. The descriptions of the 'flattened stars' caused by a massive black hole, and a ring of fire light years in diameter is extraordinary. However, Corbell then turns around and heads back to Earth to discover that everything has changed (which is not surprising because he has travelled three million years in the future). When he arrives he discovers that Earth now orbits Jupiter (which has become a star) and there are planets missing. Also Earth is mostly a barren desert, with the exception of the Antarctic, which is a lush rain forest. The inhabitants of the Earth have also changed, which I will get too. However, when he arrives, he meets a woman who captures him, tells him of an immortality that had been developed by the 'dictators' and sends him on a quest to find this immortality.

Anyway, I want to talk about the future that Niven has developed, because through the book we gradually learn how Earth arrived at this situation. Basically after Corbell died Earth descended into chaos in what is known as the Brush Wars. From what I gathered civilisation collapsed and the various countries ended up warring with each other in limited wars. In the aftermath a technocracy known as the state developed. It was seen that the democratic states that we have at the moment do not lead to order, and thus the concepts of freedom and liberty where shelved to be replaced with a totalitarian state which created a form of order. This state will dictate people's lives, and to rebel against the state is the highest crime, punishable by death. I see this developing at the moment, which is the danger of what I call the technocracy. Where I work is a classic example of the technocracy as the computer decides when we start, when we finish, and when we take our break. In many cases we are chained to our desk. Why? Because the corporation knows that it cannot trust its employees. Even my managers are chained to their desks.

What happened after is that a ruling class developed, when became to be known as the dictators, and the dictators developed a form of immortality (which is the subject of the quest, that he ends up discovering). As the dictatorship entrenches itself, a two class system develops, and as the classes become ever more separate (remember, in our world today we can still move between classes, but as the ruling class becomes ever more entrenched, it becomes ever harder to move between it) the dictators become like gods, especially since the have immortality and the lower classes do not. All the while, the state is sending out ships and colonising worlds.

During the story they discuss the idea of the 'water empire': that is that the state that controls the water is indestructible. However, as the state grows stronger, it becomes ever more decadent, to the point where a single push from an outside force can topple it, but it can never be toppled from within because the state controls the water (which is like where we are because the state, which includes our corporate masters, control the electricity production and water collection and distribution, among other things, which means that they provide us with the means of life and to overthrow the state means that we will destroy the means of our survival and thus we will perish).

Yet things did not go well for the state because it turns out that this idea did not work. As they colonised the worlds, and as the colonies became strong, they were able to fight back against the state which meant that the water empire was actually not all that powerful. We saw that with Britain who had the United States rebel and declare independence, and has in turn become the powerful state with Britain a shadow of its former glory.

Niven goes further though because as technology progresses, the means of reproduction increases to the point that one does not need sex. As such humanity does not need to grow to puberty, and thus humanity remain as children, and while they may grow in wisdom, they do not grow in age, which ends up creating another division: a division between the boys and the girls. When the sexes no longer need each other, the sexes end up becoming tribes in themselves and, surprise, surprise, end up going to war with each other because, well, they are different.

So, what we see in this book is that technology does not necessarily offer us hope, or freedom, or even peace. Humanity, at its heart, will desire to war against that which is different. Humanity, at its heart, will also sacrifice order for freedom. In fact the struggle between order and freedom is one that is deep within our modern conscience. We seek to live in an ordered society, free from fear and from hurt, but to have that freedom we must sacrifice our freedom of thought, which we do not want to do, thus conflict will arise. In the end, three million years will not bring peace, happiness, and a heavenly existence, it will simply return us to a barbaric state where we are still at war with one another.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/824077333