The Light Of Other Days

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

When I was a couple of chapters into this book, I felt that I was going to struggle with it, since I was finding the characters unmemorable (and, when I did remember them, irritating), the plot thin and none of the really big ideas that Clarke is famous for. I was wondering if this was just another senile-period damp squib. However, I’d heard good things about it, so I stuck with it and was eventually rewarded.

A driven media entrepreneur, Hiram Patterson, creates a way to use artificial wormholes to view any point on earth, and he uses this to scoop his media rivals. The book starts getting interesting once a) the ‘wormcams’ are able to look backward in time (due to the nature of spacetime equivalence at the quantum level, Patterson’s genius son David realises that as well as moving in space, the wormholes can move in time) and b) the technology becomes democratised and available to the mass populous.

It’s at this point that the book starts tackling issues like the complete lack of privacy that becomes just about inevitable, and how now that everyone can become a peeping tom, society starts changing. We see extremes from a group called Refugees who use extreme technology to try and hide from the wormcam observers to the ones who go to the other extreme, eschewing any form of privacy, up to and including clothing (there’s one scene that depicts a pair of teenagers having sex on a park bench in public, uncaring of the watchers).

The book suggests that people eventually beyond this and start using the technology in large “wiki” projects to eradicate corruption and crime, and stripping the mythology of the past to see what historical figures were really like, rather than the myths that have built up around them. However, call me cynical, but I’m not sure that if we had access to such technology we’d ever get beyond the peeping tom phase, extrapolating from similar high hopes for the Internet.

I continued to not find the human characters hugely interesting throughout the book, but couldn’t ignore them for the ideas entirely. I suspect this may be Baxter’s work, since Clarke’s characters are often just narrative vehicles and entirely ignorable, but trying to force them to have their own story dragged the book down for me. The end, seeing Hiram’s two sons, David and Bobby, ‘travelling’ far into earth’s past as they followed their ancestors into geological time was a breathtaking journey showing me that Clarke still had what it takes to evoke my sense of wonder as effortlessly as he did forty years earlier.

So, hard work in places, but definitely worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780002247535
Publisher: Voyager
Year of publication: 2000

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