The Light of Other Days

The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

The Light of Other Days is one of my favorite science fiction books ever. It was written in 2000 by Stephen Baxter based on a synopsis by Arthur C. Clarke. This breathtaking and well written story features awesome, “magic” science and technology, from a communication breakthrough based on the exotic physics of quantum wormholes all the way to mind fusion, group minds, past viewing, and the resurrection of the dead. Very, very highly recommended.

The novel starts in 2035. Hiram Patterson, a ruthless billionaire businessman, is the founder and CEO of the fictional company OurWorld (a future Google, but based in the current Microsoft campus in Seattle). His son and heir Bobby, a spoiled playboy, is actually Hiram’s clone, and a much nicer person than he appears at the beginning. Hiram’s other son from a previous marriage, David, is a brilliant theoretical physicist. Journalist Kate Manzoni, known for breaking the story of a large comet on a direct collision course with Earth, a doomsday extinction-level event five hundred years in the future, goes to Seattle to cover a world changing new technology developed by OurWorld.

At the OurWorld announcement party, at the beginning of the book, we can see current technology (that is, the current technology of 2035) in action. The “Search Engine,” an omnipresent Google on steroids that you can talk to and access via retinal implants, flying drones that serve drinks, holgraphic virtual projections and other cool things of the future. But the new technology, data communications via wormholes, is really “magic” (in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law). It has been found that space is full of microscopic wormholes, distributed with very high density, in such a way that here are always wormholes connecting any location to any other location:

“Yes, wormholes, Hiram said. What we’re seeing here are the mouths of wormholes, spontaneously forming, threaded with electric fields. Space is what keeps everything from being in the same place. Right? But at this level space is grainy, and we can’t trust it to do its job any more. And so a wormhole mouth can connect any point, in this small region of spacetime, to any other point — anywhere: downtown Seattle, or Brisbane, Australia, or a planet of Alpha Centauri. It’s as if spacetime bridges are spontaneously popping into and out of existence.”

“What’s more important is what we intend to do with all this. Simply put, we are going to reach into this quantum foam and pluck out the wormhole we want: a wormhole connecting our laboratory, here in Seattle, with an identical facility in Brisbane, Australia. And when we have it stabilized, that wormhole will form a link down which we can send signals — beating light itself. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the basis of a new communications revolution.”

OurWorld engineers, led by David, find out how to enlarge and stabilize wormholes to transmit visible light, and discover how to use remote wormholes without remote equipment. Now, with the “WormCam,” they can pop wormholes at remote locations open and watch what happens there. The WormCam is a remote viewing device, ideal for news gathering and spying. OurWorld’s monopoly on WormCam technology doesn’t last long, and of course intelligence agencies get access, but also hackers. The book follows the vicissitudes of Hiram, Bobby, David, Kate, FBI agent Michael Mavens, and angry young woman Mary, as humanity enters the era of total transparency.

But there is another, even more momentous breakthrough: the WormCam can access not only other locations, but also other times. The fabric of space-time is full of micro wormholes, and WormCam technology permits establishing data links to everywhere, anytime. It is Hiram who first realizes the awesome potential of the new development:

“‘Don’t you see? If he’s right this is a turning point in history, this moment, right here and right now, the invention of this, this past viewer. Probably the air around us is fizzing with WormCam viewpoints, sent back by future historians. Biographers. Hagiographers.’ He lifted up his head and bared his teeth. ‘Are you watching me? Are you? Do you remember my name? I’m Hiram Patterson! Hah! See what I did, you arseholes!’ And in the corridors of the future, innumerable watchers met his challenging gaze.”

The book has many asides on the huge social impact of remote viewing, and past viewing. One is especially interesting: now that we can watch past events in details, 12,000 volunteers (one per day), including David, embark in a project to chronicle the life of the most important person of our history. The Jesus revealed by direct WormCam obervation is, of course, different from the Jesus of the Gospels. Will the historical truth destroy Christianity? Perhaps not:

“Perhaps we have lost Christ. But we have found Jesus. And His example can still lead us into an unknown future.”

The new generation of “WormCam natives” pushes the new technology to really “magic” extremes, using wormholes and WormCam viewpoints embedded in the brain to achieve telepathy and mind fusion. The effect is similar to that of the neural nanobots imagined by Ramez Naam in the recent Nexus novels, but the underlying technology is much more exotic:

“The new cortical implants, adapted from neural implant VR apparatus, were the final expression of WormCam technology: a small squeezed-vacuum wormhole generator, together with neural sensor apparatus, buried deep in the cortex of the recipient… The neural sensor was a highly sensitive neuron activity pattern analyser, capable of pinpointing individual neuronal synapses. Such an implant could read and write to a brain, and link it to others… Brains joined to brains, minds linked. They called themselves the Joined.”

By combining past viewing with neural sensing wormholes, scientists will find ways to copy the dead from the past and upload them to the present, achieving Nikolai Fedorov‘s vision of technological resurrection of the dead, bringing back to life all the dead from the past. When Bobby is resurrected, about a hundred years from the beginning of the novel, Mary explains to Bobby:

“It was possible now to look back into time and read off a complete DNA sequence from any moment in an individual’s life. And it was possible to download a copy of that person’s mind — making her briefly Joined, across years, even decades — and, by putting the two together, regenerated body and downloaded mind, to restore her. To bring her back from the dead… We live on Mars, the moons of the outer planets, and we’re heading for the stars. There have even been experiments in downloading human minds into the quantum foam… We intend to restore all human souls, back to the beginning of the species. Every refugee, every aborted child. We intend to put right the past, to defeat the awful tragedy of death in a universe that may last tens of billions of years.”

Is something like the WormCam even remotely possible? We don’t know, but new research seems to imply that the magic technologies described in the novel could perhaps be realized. These preliminary results don’t tell us how to build a WormCam, not yet, and they don’t provide proof that such a device is physically possible. A lot of theoretical and experimental work will be needed for that. But these results do show that quantum reality is weird enough to give plausibility to the intuition that every space-time pixel is connected to every other space-time pixels by information conduits that, perhaps, future engineers will be able to exploit with awesome results.

Note: “Light of Other Days” is also the title of a 1966 Hugo- and Nebula- nominated short story by Bob Shaw. The novel Other Days, Other Eyes (1972) was based on the short story.