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Literature / The Light of Other Days

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The Light of Other Days is a 2000 novel by Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke set in the near future. The main story arc follows a reporter named Kate Manzoni who gets involved with the son of a powerful industrialist named Hiram Patterson. The driving force of the plot is when Hiram announces the development of a technology capable of finding and stabilizing micro-wormholes between any two points. Initially, this is intended for cheaper and faster communications, but it's soon expanded to create wormholes big enough to see through, which gives the ability to view any point on earth. Then, it's realized that wormholes can reach through time as well, allowing a window into the past. Much of the novel is devoted to exploring the profound social and practical implications of a world in which privacy and secrecy are impossible, and all of history is on display.


This series contains examples of

  • Apocalypse How: Class 6. Kate apparently achieved fame by breaking the story of a massive comet that will impact the earth in 500 years, sterilizing the entire planet. Interestingly, this has essentially no impact on the plot, except that it takes place in a world that people now assume has a limited lifespan. Turns out this happened once before, three billion years ago, with all life now on Earth being descended from a sample placed by the civilisation that existed at that time. Subverted in the present, as the Wormwood itself is eventually diverted.
  • Chronoscope: The central technology of the novel, called Wormcam by its marketers. Significantly, it can view anywhere, at any time in the past or present (though not the future). The implications of this technology being freely available is fully explored.
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  • Clones Are People, Too: Wormcam proves that Bobby is actually a clone of Hiram, not his son. Bobby created him as a crude bid for immortality. Then, when the technology became available to interface minds, apparently changed his plan to actually transfer his mind into Bobby's body.
  • Creative Sterility: It's mentioned a few times that neuroscience has advanced to the point where neural reprogramming has become commonplace for people with mental illnesses (including addictions and compulsive behavior), as well as people convicted of crimes. Kate points out that this reprogramming is killing human creativity, and artistic achievement is rapidly vanishing. This, however, is apparently a minority opinion.
  • Dated History: One of the vignettes about how Wormcam is used talks about a researcher finally solving the case of Ötzi, a natural mummy found in the Italian Alps. The novel states that he was a hunter who went too far into the mountains in pursuit of his prey and died of hypothermia. The year after the novel was published, scans of the body proved that he'd been shot with arrows and had his head smashed in. It's now widely accepted that he died a violent death and may have been deliberately buried in the mountains.
  • Driven to Suicide: Averted. When Kate is falsely convicted and sentenced to neural modification, she intends to kill herself rather than commit to the treatment, but she and Bobby find a way to go on the run together, and she quickly takes that option instead.
    • Offscreen, the novel states, a couple of times, that one of the effects of Wormcam is several massive, global rounds of suicides, as everybody with an undiscovered crime or secret in their past (large or small) faces discovery.
  • Expanded States of America: In the backstory, the UK breaks up in the 2010s, with Scotland becoming independent, Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland, and England becoming a US State. No word on what happens to Wales. A minor plot point is the potential for military conflict between the US and Scotland, now that the countries border one another (specifically, over water resources).
  • Grand Theft Me: It's ultimately revealed that Hiram has been funding The Joined in order to develop the technology to transfer his mind into Bobby's body, and effectively become immortal.
  • Hive Mind: In the latter half of the novel, it's mentioned that young people are starting to get neural implants which use wormhole communication to directly interface their minds over great distances. They call themselves "The Joined". Kate eventually figures out that Hiram is funding them in order to develop mind-connection technology, which he intends to use to keep his mind alive when he dies.
  • Intangible Time Travel: The physics of wormholes only allows energy to travel one way: from the past to the present. People can view the past all they want, and eventually in such detail that they can create virtual reality reconstructions of the past, but it's impossible to affect the past in any way.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Kate Manzoni. She first uncovers the development of Wormcam, and then is hired by Hiram to use it to break news stories even faster.
  • Lack of Empathy: Hiram is not a malicious man, but totally unswayed by anything that doesn't relate to building his company and his legacy. In a notable early scene, he walks in with footage from a mass poisoning of civilians in Egypt and is clearly enraged... that a rival news network got the footage before he did.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title comes from a poem by Thomas Moore of the same name. The first page quotes from the opening of the poem.
    Oft, in the stilly night,
    Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
    Fond Memory brings the light
    Of other days around me.
  • Mass Resurrection: The epilogue of the book has technology advanced enough to create an exact copy of someone's body and mental state just before their death, which is used to revive Bobby. The people of that era intend to bring back every human that has ever lived in this way.
  • Misplaced Retribution: May Wilson's agenda against Hiram is so convoluted that describing it is an exercise in spaghetti logic. To wit: years ago, her son was murdered, and her husband was convicted and executed for the crime. When the Wormcam became available, it was discovered that May's daughter had actually committed the murder and she's subsequently executed as well. Having now lost her entire family, and utterly destroyed by the process, she blames Wormcam for revealing the truth and blames Hiram for inventing it. Blames him so thoroughly, in fact, that she's determined to kill him in revenge.
  • Motive Rant: Subverted. We know about May Wilson's reasons for killing Hiram from early on. When the moment arrives, she starts to tell him why, and he interrupts her, saying he'd always known that some nut would get to him eventually, and her reason really didn't matter to him.
  • Mundane Utility: Hiram specifically develops the technology to stabilize visible wormholes in order to give his media empire a decisive edge in news gathering. Once it's perfected, it's immediately used for the lowest rungs of tabloid television: collecting gossip and filming nude celebrities. Kate calls him out on this, but he points out that the ratings are huge and that's the entire point of the enterprise.
  • Our Wormholes Are Different: The basic plot of the novel depends on the ability to find, stabilize and look through wormholes into the past, on demand.
  • Precursors: All life on Earth turns out to be descended from a biological sample left by a civilisation that inhabited Earth three billion years ago but was wiped out.
  • Religion Is Wrong: One of the first effects of Wormcam is that the origins of all religions can be easily investigated. The assumption of the novel is that would destroy most religions, particularly those based on historical literalism. It's explicitly stated that Moses turns out to be a mythical figure, and an entire chapter is dedicated to the "real" biography of Jesus, who turns out to be an impressive figure, but who never had or claimed any special spiritual significance. It's implied that humanity quickly pivots to the view that we've Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions.
  • Surveillance as the Plot Demands: Justified in this case. The invention of Wormcam makes surveillance possible on anything, anywhere, including retroactively. If you want to observe something, you can.
  • Time Skip: A few occur over the course of the book, notably one of three years after Bobby and Kate go off the grid and at the end forty years, followed by another sixty years.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Most of the book takes place in the mid-2030s.