We’re Gonna Take You Back To The Past: “The Light of Other Days” review

It’s been nearly two years since Edward Snowden either betrayed his country, or exposed a terrible injustice by fighting for truth and honour, depending on how you look at it.

I fall more towards the latter, if I may say. The PRISM program was a heinous case of government overreach. Not only was the NSA collecting an unprecedented amount of information on people, it was doing it without any cause to, or any apparent legal restrictions.

Now, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. I mean, I’ve watched 24, and I have to admit, I found it quite impressive and cool the way Chloe and the plucky gang at CTU used clever computer tricks to defeat the terrorists; Such as hacking their emails, tracing their cell phones, spying on them through surveillance cameras, and the like. And of course, we all knew the government was doing this kinda thing… to criminals. To people who should be monitored. Heck, that was what a good chunk of NetForce was about. They monitored and tracked people who were bad people, likely to perform terrorist attacks, massive computer hacks, and digital global takeovers. And all this means is that the rhetoric badgered on by one senator who said Snowden’s revelations somehow impaired their intelligence gathering techniques is frankly bullshit! Because we all knew, or at least suspected, that it was possible. Which meant criminals also already knew, or at least suspected, that it was possible and likely operated on that assumption. So, Snowden’s revelations didn’t change how they operated. It just justified their pre-existing paranoia.

But my point is: none of this is shocking. What was shocking is that it was being done to average citizens. The U.S. government was collecting terabytes of information on millions of people around the world, without any warrant or justification. It was a shotgun approach to espionage, and it seems they were doing it just to have the information, not necessarily to do anything with it.

Which brings us to the most bizarre thing about this whole fiasco, and that is the unusual reaction I’ve heard from many corners: Who cares? Who cares if the U.S. Government is collecting our information? It’s not like they’re going to do anything with it.

And that would be a fabulous argument, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s completely beside the point! Yes, they probably won’t do anything nasty with it. They probably won’t even look at it. They’ll just store the information on some server somewhere, and just let it rot. In which case, why even collect it to begin with? They have no need to collect our information, and can easily abuse it once they do. In fact, there have been cases of exactly that happening. Cases of NSA employees spying on their girlfriends with the information gathered by the program. And that’s only the cases that have been caught. These people are spies, you think they can’t hide that shit!?

Now, it’s true that the average citizen probably isn’t dating a spy. So they don’t have to worry. But that’s not the point. The point is, they shouldn’t even be collecting this information to begin with. There are limits to what law enforcement can do, and there are reasons those limits exist! The average citizen does not have a right to spy on my Skype messages, so why should the U.S. government? And I don’t want anyone, whether it be my best friend, or some prick in some NSA dungeon somewhere, aggregating details on my porn habits.

Wanting to maintain our individual privacy should not be a big ask.

But I think I know why some people don’t care. It’s because of Facebook. Hell, all social media is to blame for this! For years sites like Twitter, MySpace, LiveJournal, have all asked people to share the intimate details of their lives, despite the fact that it’s unlikely anyone else would give two shits. And because of this, news that the NSA has been collecting the data they thought was worth sharing makes them think: Hey, it wasn’t all pointless!

People have been willingly sharing the details of their lives with strangers around the world. So what do they care if the NSA just happens to be watching as well?

So I guess it’s a generational thing. Those young people who grew up on social media don’t see a problem, while those of us who are older and wiser, do. And it makes you think: What are the limits of this? What will be the point where we just give up on privacy all together? And it might be the point where a brand new and unprecedented technology eliminates privacy for us, whether we want it to or not. Perhaps a technology that allows us to witness The Light of Other Days.

Wow, that was a contrived opening, wasn’t it?

Yes, it’s time to talk about the incredible novel of time, space and insanity by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, The Light of Other Days. And let me tell ya, I’m glad I finally get to write about an unambiguously good book for once.

Our story is all about a single piece of technology. It starts as a wormhole-based communication device called the DataPipe. That’s right, faster-than-light communication! Isn’t it awesome? And it’s introduced in a slightly heartrending sequence, where they juxtapose the introduction of a brand-new communication medium, as one of the elderly fathers of Russian rocketry witnesses the launch of a communication satellite. And as he dies of old age, during the launch, his entire industry dies with him. Satellite communication is no longer necessary in the age of wormholes.

But this is merely the start of the chaos, as the inventor of the technology, Hiram Patterson, wants to take it a step further. Well, I say he’s the ‘inventor,’ but that’s actually a lie, he invents fuck all. Hiram is just the man who hired the people who invented the technology. The real credit goes to the team of scientists and engineers who remain nameless. Hiram takes all the credit and all the profit through his company, OurWorld, a massive media conglomerate that apparently branched out into advanced particle physics.

The wormholes he uses are extremely fucking tiny, even by the standards of quantum mechanics, which is actually explained in the novel. You see, the odds of maintaining a stable wormhole is inversely proportional to its size. The bigger the wormhole, the harder it is to keep open. So only the tiniest of particles can get through. Not only that, the wormholes have to be maintained by massive particle accelerators at each end. And I really like that they explain how hard the technology was to develop, including mention of a Casimir engine and the quantum foam. This is some rock hard sci-fi we got here, a staple of Clarke’s work.

Anyway, because these wormholes are so tiny, not even visible light can get through; they use gamma rays to transmit the information. But Hiram wants to branch out. He wants to expand the technology to allow visible light to pass through. He wants to be able to look through a wormhole. So he calls on the services of David Curzon, particle physicist and his estranged son.

David’s hesitant to begin the work, partially because his father’s a dick, but also because he says it’s fucking impossible for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. The more energy you pass through a wormhole, the quicker it’ll destabilize. There’s also the fact to maintain a wormhole you need a giant machine at each end, and Hiram only wants a giant machine at one end, which is impossible. But eventually David decides to give it a shot, and as we follow his work, we realize just how difficult it really is. He runs several experiments a day at Hiram’s WormWorks facility, and ends up encountering failure after failure. But that doesn’t mean he’s not making progress, in fact he explains that many of his trials he expects to fail, since proving a theory wrong is way more valuable than suggesting a theory is correct. And eventually, after hundreds of tests, and months of work, when he least suspects it, a stable wormhole is formed.

Introducing the WormCam, which OurWorld keeps as a company secret, using it to get exclusive details on government secrets, early shots of a hurricane aftermath, POV video of athletes for sports reports, and finally an exclusive shot of UN Secretary General Geri Halliwell’s tits.

Oh yes, I’m serious. And this comes as no surprise, because it actually becomes apparent very early in the story that Hiram has no fucking shame. All he cares about is money, power, and control. Which is why he serves as the book’s main antagonist. The only reason he has his people develop the technology is to earn money. He doesn’t care what the wider consequences will be, he just wants it to benefit him.

And through OurWorld’s use of the WormCam, it doesn’t take long before the US Government learns about it, and demands that they get to use it as well. Then the public learns about it, and everything goes to hell.

The fact that the WormCam allows anyone in the world to be spied on at any time causes privacy to slowly go away. It starts when the public are allowed access to the WormCam technology, for a fee. Now of course OurWorld censors the WormCam content by blocking people from viewing war zones, and the interior of people’s homes; But at least one person manages to find a workaround: Heather Mays, one of our major supporting characters, bypasses the filter to investigate wartime atrocities in Uzbekistan. Her daughter, Mary, also runs the bypass so she can spy on a male classmate masturbating.

So yes, despite people’s best efforts, all forms of privacy start to die, mainly because we lose the ability to maintain it. As time goes on, people stop bothering to maintain their own privacy, and in one frankly bizarre scene late in the book, we see two young lovers having sex on a public park bench, not caring that they’re surrounded by people watching and wanking. This is likely because whether they have sex in public or private won’t stop people from watching.

Now, this all seems pretty bad, but the real glory of the WormCam comes as David, eager to expand the system’s development, attempts to expand the range as far as Saturn. And hell, I don’t blame him. A live feed of another planet? Who wouldn’t want that? I, personally, am still waiting on that mission to Europa! But as he explains the idea to his half-brother Bobby, an off-hand remark about spacetime and ‘intervals’ prompts a brief discussion about how time and space are interchangeable. Then Bobby makes a suggestion, and suddenly the past-viewer is born. You see, David realizes that as he stretches out the WormCam further into space, he can also stretch it further into the past. Not the future though, any attempt to view the future causes a feedback loop, which I feel is a little stupid and makes it seem as if photons are intelligent.

Anyway, it’s at this point in the story that the WormCam really comes into its own. Because the ability to view the past has applications that go way beyond shitty voyeurism. Because it’s an often spoken and sad truth that the history books are always written by the victors. But thanks to the WormCam, we can now find out exactly what happened at any point in the past.

You know paleontologists are going to have a field day.

But yes, historians use it to examine various events, and the details of people’s lives, and they make some amazing discoveries regarding the American Civil War, Fermat’s last theorem, Einstein’s deathbed, and the Mona Lisa. And the Mona Lisa discovery I really like. Basically, we learn not only that the Mona Lisa stored at the Louvre is a forgery, but that the original, while it was designed by Leonardo Di Vinci, wasn’t actually painted by him. He contracted the work out so he can spend his time drawing helicopters and writing backwards.

But the best discovery in the book might be the true life and times of Jesus, which an entire chapter is devoted to. And it basically explains that the most ridiculous elements of Christian mythology; such as the virgin birth, the whole idea of a census requiring you to return to your hometown, and the various ‘miracles’ that popped up; all developed due to people not understanding words in context, embellishing the truth, and outright lying to fit prophecy. Oh, and the best part? Jesus was married, and had a daughter. And that makes sense since why wouldn’t he eventually settle down with a nice family? And this story of Jesus is one I can get behind. Yes, I’m an atheist, but the biggest problem I have with most religion it that they all seem to be 95 per cent bullshit! This doesn’t, and it is a really nice story, about a man who sees the faults with his community, and endeavors to improve them, which is eventually what kills him.

Oh, and he doesn’t come back from the dead, because that would be stupid.

So that’s history. But the new past-viewing functions can also be used for other things; law enforcement, for example; and you can see why. Any crime one commits can always be traced using the WormCam. I mean hell, if the WormCam existed, Broadchurch would’ve ended in 20 minutes.

Hardy: Well, a child’s dead. Who killed him?
Miller: Just a minute, I’m tracing it back. Oh it’s-OH MY GOD!!! [spoilers]

By the way, if you haven’t watched Broadchurch, watch Broadchurch.

Anyway, the applications are obvious, and we actually get a prime example in the story, with the murder of a young boy (oddly enough), by his foster-father. At least, that’s what they thought. The man was tried, convicted, and executed because this was the United States. Then the WormCam was invented, and they found out he was innocent. The real culprit was his foster daughter, who had major psychological issues, and thought her foster parents had replaced her with this new kid. So she killed her foster-brother, and framed her foster-father for murder.

I think this whole scene was meant to show that the WormCam was actually dangerous, because the man’s wife, who thought her husband murdered the kid, and was since executed, now has to lose her foster daughter as well. She was blissfully ignorant of what the girl had done, but because of the WormCam, that’s not true anymore. She lost her entire family in the course of this bullshit.

But really, to me, this doesn’t show the dangers of the WormCam. If anything, it shows the dangers of capital punishment. If there’s a chance you can execute an innocent person, you shouldn’t execute anyone, ever!

Anyway, this also comes into play with one of the book’s main plot threads, involving Bobby’s girlfriend, Kate. Shortly after the past-viewing function is discovered, she finds herself being accused of industrial espionage. Apparently, she hacked into one of OurWorld’s major competitors, IBM, in order to steal a piece of technology that would solve a major glitch in one of Bobby’s new VR projects.

Of course, they use the WormCam to monitor her at the moment she allegedly hacked into IBM’s databases, and find nothing on her computer screen indicating that she was doing any hacking whatsoever. Which the prosecutors explain away by saying she probably knew viewing the past was a possible future function of the WormCam, so she managed to run the hack without letting anything appear on her screen.

Now, I’m currently studying IT and computer programming, and I can’t even fathom a way one could actually pull that off. I also can’t understand how a journalist, not a computer tech or anything but a journalist, and yes an admittedly very smart journalist, but still just a journalist, could to hack into IBM! Much less how she could do that without revealing any indication of it on her monitor or keyboard!

So yes, it smacks of bullshit. And at this point in the story, it’s very clear what’s really going on, so I don’t consider it a spoiler. She’s being framed by Hiram, who has an irrational grudge against her because she has a spine, and is dating his son. She also deactivated the implant Hiram put in Bobby’s brain that made him an emotionless twat.

Yes, Hiram’s an evil fucker.

But the funny thing is, they still try to use the WormCam to prove her guilt! How? Well, they examine various events in her life, and use it to explain why she would do something so terrible. Basically cherry-picking moments that make her look bad, and using that to prove that she’s the type of person who would steal technology from a company database.

Now, this annoys me, because I look back at my own life, and I’m sure you could find events that, taken in isolation, could prove that I’m a complete sociopath likely to stage a terrorist attack in an attempt to overthrow the Canadian government. I’m not… but you could cherry pick moments that could prove a complete falsehood like that.

Which I guess is a real danger of the WormCam. People abusing it, and using it to prove their own truths, no matter how full of shit they are. Because the WormCam is just like any ‘cam,’ it can only see what’s right in front of it. It can’t see what’s truly inside. It can’t read your mind.

But beside this, the most interesting part of the novel isn’t the various applications of the WormCam, but how these applications affect society. I already mentioned how privacy dissolves, and how people start having sex in public, but there’s more than that. Because despite the fact that anyone can see anything, anywhere, there are people who don’t want that. There are people who want to fight the WormCam, and preserve their privacy. Hiram helps by developing the SmartShroud, which is basically an invisibility cloak of the future; but these people have to go several steps further. They are forced to live most of their lives in complete darkness. They communicate with their friends using finger spelling, the same way Helen Keller learned to communicate. They refer to each other by random numbers, changing them on a daily basis. They have to travel in convoluted and unpredictable paths to confuse anyone trying to trace them. And let me tell you, that is a lot of effort to go to just to maintain the same modicum of privacy we enjoy now.

It is quite fucked.

And this is all explained as we see Kate and Bobby travel this underground railroad of sorts, to escape the legal justice system. And I think it’s about time I talked about these characters in greater detail.

Kate Manzoni is a world-famous journalist. She has an independant spirit, and is almost dogmatic in her moral code. She is one of the first people to work with the WormCam, once it’s invented, and starts pushing for public disclosure of the technology from the very beginning. Which is one of the first things that starts pissing Hiram off. Throughout most of the novel, the two of them continually butt heads, mainly because while they both have Alpha-type personalities, they also have completely antithetical goals. Hiram wants power and control over everything, especially his son, Bobby. But, as would befit a journalist, Kate wants everyone to freely make their own informed decisions, especially her boyfriend, Bobby.

Ah yes, Bobby Patterson. It’s hard to know what to make of this guy. Early in the book he doesn’t have much of a personality, and comes across as aloof and empty. Which begs the question of why Kate was attracted to him in the first place. It is stated that he’s a suave ladies-man, but it’s never established as to ‘how.’ It’s the old ‘show, don’t tell’ problem.

Eventually, it’s revealed that Bobby had an implant placed in his head when he was a child. Ostensibly for medical reasons, but Kate scans it and learns that it was actually designed to suppress certain emotions and make him entirely loyal to his father, Hiram. The main goal being to make Bobby immune to religion, which Hiram hates with a passion. And yeah, I understand where he’s coming from, but this is going a bit overboard if you ask me.

Once the implant is deactivated, Bobby’s personality changes quite drastically. He becomes more caring, more passionate, and more sensitive. But he’s also quite immature and doesn’t know how to handle all these new feelings, which makes him come off as awkward and unsure.

And since we’re on the subject of characters: Hiram Patterson. A man who, as I already mentioned, is a cock. He operates as the book’s primary antagonist, which is good, because it’s pretty easy to hate him. He’s arrogant, surly, megalomaniacal, greedy, and just plain dickish. But from the first chapter, it’s not something one would easily notice, since we see him doing nothing more than presenting his DataPipe technology. He’s in PR mode, and can cover his more assholeish traits quite easily. But starting with his second appearance, when he’s arguing with Kate, we see exactly what his role is.

And then, there’s David Curzon, Hiram’s first son from his first marriage. He’s a physicist and devout Catholic, which is a cause of much contention between him and his father; In fact, his mother was also a Catholic, whom Hiram married without taking her faith into consideration. And according to Hiram, her religion broke their marriage apart. I guess constantly telling someone their god’s a cunt can cause a bit of tension. However, one would think, with Hiram hiring David to develop the WormCam, that as the plot progresses, we would see these two on the road to some type of reconciliation. Well, that would just show that you don’t understand how much of a dick Hiram is. He just sees his son as a tool. A means to an end. And over time the only real relationships we see David develop is with Bobby, whom we see conversing with him on a regular basis, and Heather Mays, Bobby’s mother.

David and Heather’s relationship starts as a simple friendship. But then, over time, Heather begins falling into a bit of a mental breakdown. Mainly triggered by the disappearance of her daughter, Mary. And because of this, David starts trying to help her, and begins spending more and more time with her. Though we don’t get much detail regarding their relationship, possibly because she is, in a way, his step-mom. It’s a very weird way, but nonetheless.

Finally, there’s Mary, Heather’s daughter, the stereotypical rebellious teenager whose personality is hard to pin down. She just seems to hate everything, and just decides to counter whatever trend society is currently progressing toward. Which is what leads her to joining the Anti-WormCam Underground, and eventually recruiting Kate and Bobby to the cause. So she’s not a fan of the WormCam. But wormhole-based technology she doesn’t seem to have a problem with; Since she uses it constantly, and late in the story she ends up joining the Joined, a group of people who have neural implants installed into their brains, hooked up to wormholes, creating a global hive mind sharing thoughts and memories. So she obviously doesn’t have a problem with losing privacy either. She seems to just do things because they’re contrary to society.

As the novel closes, the WormCam has a bit more good to do. (And spoiler warning if you don’t want to know.) Advances in the technology allow them to finally exonerate Kate, track down people at the genetic level, solve the energy crisis by extracting energy directly from the core of the earth, and finally trace people’s own ancestry back as far as it’ll go. And we even see an intelligent race that used to live on Earth millions of years ago, saving a small sample of bacteria from being wiped out by a giant asteroid, along with everything else, including them. And we evolved from that tiny sample of bacteria.

This parallels humanity’s own challenges dealing with the discovery of Wormwood, a comet set to annihilate humanity in about 500 years. This is something that is constantly mentioned by the characters time and time again, but has no real impact on the plot, and just hangs in the background. Which is why I didn’t mention it until now. It really is the most pointless part of the book if you ask me.

Oh, and near the end, Hiram imprisons Kate. Just in case you didn’t think he was a big enough cunt yet.

The story ends with them discovering how to bring people back from the dead; and they mention saving everyone who ever died in humanity’s history, even aborted fetuses… We’re gonna run out of room. I genuinely think this is pretty stupid because there’s no reason to bring back everyone! Besides, a lot of them were dicks! Do you really want to bring back Charles Manson, or Osama Bin Laden, or Kanye West? Seriously!

And that, more or less, is everything there is to say about The Light of Other Days. The only thing left, obviously, is to read it, because it’s fantastic! The writing may be a bit clumsy, and few scenes a bit exposition-heavy, but overall it’s a really good read. I cannot recommend it enough.

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