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Literature / A World Out of Time

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A World Out of Time is a science fiction novel by Larry Niven, first published in 1976. Parts of it had previously appeared in magazines as the short story "Rammer" and the serial "The Children of the State".

The protagonist, Jerome Branch Corbell, is cryogenically frozen in the 1970s in hope that the future will produce a cure for his cancer. He is revived in a future where the entire world is run by a totalitarian state, and learns that "corpsicles" like himself are considered to have no rights and must work for the State to justify their continued existence. Corbell is assigned the task of piloting a Ram Scoop starship to find potentially habitable worlds and seed them with Terraforming packages. He rebels, taking the ship on a long journey of exploration that lasts many decades for him and, due to Time Dilation, three million years back on Earth; he returns to find Earth once again, and even more dramatically, changed.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Afraid of Needles: Corbell died of cancer before the book begins (he got better). He reflects on how that experience cured him of any fear of needles.
  • Agony Beam: Mirelly-Lyra Zeelashisthar's silver cane, which can inflict crippling emotional pain. It was designed by a world-conquering State as a conditioning tool for recalcitrant slaves. A highly effective one, too; Corbell is so traumatized by the experience that just looking at Mirelly terrifies him.
    It wasn’t physical, this agony. It was sorrow and helpless rage and guilt. He wanted to die.
  • Alien Sky: When Corbell returns after his voyage of exploration, he finds an Earth that has been moved to orbit Jupiter, because a planet was dropped into the Sun during an interstellar war, making Earth's former orbit uninhabitably hot.
  • Cold Sleep, Cold Future: Corbell goes into cryogenic suspension and is revived into an authoritarian world. He's expected to earn his new lease on life by piloting a sublight interstellar mission. If he fails to qualify, they'll erase his brain pattern from the body (of a condemned criminal, executed by brainwipe) he's using and try again with the next Human Popsicle.
  • Colony Drop: Earth develops extra-solar colonies, and they eventually go to war. By throwing planets at each other. Earth's colonies drop a gas giant into the sun, which causes it to heat up and kill most life on Earth and eventually become a red giant star. Lots of moving planets around follows, with the Earth eventually ending up as a satellite of Jupiter.
  • Compound-Interest Time Travel Gambit: An unlucky Human Popsicle attempts this but finds out the hard way that the courts of his time ruled those like him could not own property and thus the assets he set up for himself were long gone.
  • Evolutionary Stasis: Downplayed. The far-future inhabitants of Earth are subtly different from modern-day humans, most notably in their hair patterns and increased intelligence (that's discounting artificial changes such as the Longevity Treatment). Still, the changes are very small for something that occurred on the same time gap that separates us from Australopithecus.
  • Genetic Memory: Before the "RNA memory" theory was discredited, Niven used it as a teaching device in this story.
  • Human Popsicle: Corbell is a "corpsicle" revived in an unfriendly future. Most of the time their legal rights are severely curtailed, since they usually have run out of the money that was paying to keep them frozen and lack any kind of relevant work skills.
  • Lady Land / No Woman's Land: On the distant future Earth, an immortality treatment that only worked on the prepubescent results in a population of immortals who, biologically arrested and not needing each other for the continuance of the species, split into Boys and Girls and form two entirely separate and occasionally warring societies (both implied to be screwed up equally, but in different ways).
  • Longevity Treatment: The last part of the book involves a search for an immortality treatment for adults that involves removing impurities from the body.
  • Never Land: While Corbell is away exploring, Earth develops an immortality treatment that only works on pre-pubescents. The far future Earth is ruled by the Boys, who exterminated the Girls, and then seem to enjoy living a tribal hunter-gatherer existence with stone-age technology, though they fully understand and routinely repair more complicated devices. Adults are basically slaves kept to breed more Boys.
  • One World Order: The State.
  • Population Control: The State is a One World Order where Individuality Is Illegal, and only massive fusion-powered desalinators on every shoreline can provide enough fresh water for the massive population. A few generations back, the State instituted compulsory sterilization for all those with harmful genes, both for eugenic reasons, to save money on heath care, and to slow the rapid population growth.
  • Portal Network: With Multistage Teleport: The otherwise hard-science A World out of Time includes teleporting booths; they are innately short-range and require a long, unbroken string of booths to travel long distances.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: High-tech devices, including a Portal Network of teleport booths, Flying Cars, automated house-manufacturing units, and medical technology, are still functioning after three million years. The setting does have temporal stasis technology, so may be Justified.
  • Ram Scoop: The starship Corbell pilots is propelled by a Bussard ramjet.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Jerome Corbell starts the story waking up after spending 220 years in suspended animation. By the end of the novel, because of time-dilation caused by a close encounter with a black hole, he's at least three million years old.
  • Sapient Ship: When Corbell rebels and takes the ramship off in his own direction, it is taken over by beaming a recording of the mind of his jailer at the ship over and over again. This has mixed results: the ship AI now has the personality of Peersa, and thus wants to defeat Corbell and bring him to heel, but it's constrained by its fundamental programming to obey direct commands from Corbell because he's the ship's authorized pilot.
  • Shout-Out: Corbell's name is a shout-out to James Branch Cabell.
  • Space Age Stasis: Averted overall in the novel, but implied to be the case for The State, which lasted at least 50,000 years without much societal change.
  • Space Amish: The far-future immortal Boys spend the antarctic summer living as nomadic Stone Age hunters, but return to their high-tech cities during the unending darkness of the polar winter.
  • Teenage Wasteland: In the distant future, most of the Earth is ruled by immortal boy-children who keep a supply of grown-ups around as breeding stock. (The immortal girl-children were wiped out by a gender war and environmental changes making their territory uninhabitable.) All new boy-children are taken from the adults and join troupes of the immortal boys; the ones that demonstrate "superior qualities" are sent back to the adults to become new breeding adults, while the rest become immortal and stay boys forever. Girls remain with the adults and grow into new breeding adults. Both the boys and girls are depicted as cruel despots, but not because of their "youth"; most are far older than the adults and have the mentalities to match. They're cruel because they're powerful, ancient immortals, and cruelty is how they alleviate their boredom.
  • Terraform: Delivering biological terraforming packages to suitable extrasolar planets is the job given to the corpsicle Corbell.
  • The War of Earthly Aggression: Earth tries to assert its influence on the extrasolar colonies it has seeded. They then go to war by firing relativistic projectiles at each other.
  • To the Future, and Beyond: The novel starts with Corbell waking up about two centuries in his own future; later, due to Time Dilation, he voyages three million years farther.