World Out of Time, A by Niven, Larry, 1976

World Out of Time, A by Niven, Larry - Book cover from

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A World Out of Time is Larry Niven's admirable attempt at telling a "Dying Earth" story. Dying Earth tales are stories that take place at the end of time, or in this case, near the end of our star's evolution. I have always liked this quirky little book. It is part of a loosely built trilogy of books that also include The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring, neither of which I am a fan of. The only real connection between these stories is the existence of a repressive Earth-based government called "The State." After that the books are separated in time by millions of years and share no characters, plots or settings. Three stars out of five.

A World Out of Time is a little bit odd because it starts in our era. Corbell, riddled with cancer, allows himself to be put into a deep-freeze so that he can be revived when a cure is discovered. He is awakened after several hundred years by State functionaries who seek only to find viable slave labor for high-risk jobs. When he went into suspended animation Corbell was pretty well off and had provided for himself. After he is awakened he learns that not only has the State confiscated all of his property and revoked his citizenship, but has thrown away his original body and placed his personality and memories into the body of a mind-wiped criminal. His rights are equal to that of a convicted criminal, and the only way he has to redeem himself at all is to consent to an indenture, complete a risky job, then move back into society. The State has assigned Peerssa to evaluate Corbell, who has made it clear that if Corbell is found wanting his mind will be wiped and the body he inhabits will be used to house the next personality in line. Peerssa eventually decides that Corbell is a loner and a wanderer who has no phobias (save exhibitionism) and assigns him to pilot a hydrogen ramscoop ship that is to seed deserted worlds with biological packages as a preliminary step in terraforming them. On the trip out Corbell decides that he has had enough, steals the ship and changes course for the core of the galaxy. Unfortunately for Corbell, Peerssa manages to download his personality into the ramship's AI so that he can nag Corbell. The AI Peerssa though is now a servant of Corbell, and no longer a task master. Corbell pilots his ship to the black hole at the center of the galaxy and skips over the event horizon, propelling him into the far, far future. Corbell decides to return to Earth, but when he gets to the Sol system it is almost unrecognizable as it has been heavily re-engineered in the intervening years.

The changes to Sol System are probably some of the coolest things about this book. Sol itself has evolved to red giant stage, and has eaten up just about everything out to Earth's old planesphere. Earth's orbit has been moved far out to keep the planet cool enough to live on. The gas giants are all heavily depleted, as their atmospheres have obviously been put to heavy industrial use. In fact, Uranus has been used as a fuel tank attached to a ship that was used to move other planets around! Earth's environment is also radically changed. Most of the planet is uninhabitable desert. The only temperate zones are at the poles, and the orbit has been radically changed so that long winters are no longer the norms in those zones.

Once Corbell gets to Earth and figures out how to descend to the planet he finds himself in a race for his life, and to keep from being enslaved again. He meets a very old woman named Mirelly-Lyra who is also a returnee from a long voyage, and may even have been born in Corbell's era. She has learned that the planet is ruled by a group of immortal boys in Antarctica who keep themselves young by using a procedure devised by a class of human called the Dikta (a bastardization of "dictator") who are now kept as slaves of the boys. Mirelly-Lyra has no use for Corbell save as a tool, and is none too gentle with him. After crash landing and spending enough time in this insane woman's company Corbell's mission becomes to find the anti-aging treatment, defeat the boys and breed a new race to people the Earth either with a rejuvenated Mirelly-Lyra or the underclass of Dikta that are found here and there.

Categorizing this book past a Dying Earth adventure is a little difficult. Entropy of course is also a big sub theme, not only because of the Dying Earth issues, but because of fallen cities and the ruined, post-war culture on Earth. There are some Stapledonian elements to this one, just as there are in the Known Space stories, particularly those about the Ringworld. More prevalent are the Vance-type Dying Earth elements. There are some moderately strong libertarian ideas that run through the text, particularly whenever Corbell runs into either The State or its remnants on the future Earth. Unfortunately most of them are so heavily draped with Niven's strong conservative views that no debate is presented, or even really possible about the merits of the countervailing viewpoint. Niven, as usual, also did a very very poor job with his female characters, but not so poorly that I would feel comfortable putting the label of misogynistic on this book. Suffice it to say though the young women are all pretty much sex toys, and the old one is a hated enemy who takes Corbell's freedom and ultimately his best tool, Peerssa, who decides in the end to follow her because she is a holdover from the past, and likely the best link to The State in the entire system. I was impressed that Niven's main character was an elderly man, but that only lasts until Corbell figures out how to make himself young again. This really also is not Niven's typical hard SF genre book, and although it does have quite a few of those elements in it, they are not too important to the telling of the story, and unusually for Larry Niven, they are quite dated at this time, 2007. In my opinion this is a pretty good book, but it lacks the feeling of importance that the Known Space books give, and it really doesn't fit anywhere else in Niven's well developed structure of stories, so it feels also like the odd-man-out. Its worth the time to read, though.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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