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

Tor, 2000, 316 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87199-6

I sense a trend. And, for once, it’s a good one.

Over the years, Arthur C. Clarke has collaborated with quite a few authors. Gregory Benford wrote a “sequel” to Clarke’s The City and the Stars (a classic that shouldn’t be “improved” by any means!) and it stank deeply. Clarke and Gentry Lee collaborated on a novel, Cradle, that left most indifferent. Lee then wrote a “sequel” to Clarke’s Rendez-vous with Rama (a classic that could use some work, but not by hacks like Lee) and the result was a bloated trilogy that wasn’t very good either. Mike McQuay expanded a Clarke outline in the novel Richter 10 and the result, while better, wasn’t all that good.

At that point in time, most SF critics individually came up with the “Clarke Collaboration Theorem”, which in simple term stated “all Clarke collaborations suck”.

But then came along The Trigger, written in collaboration with Michael Kube-McDowell (ie; Clarke wrote a two-thousand word outline which was expanded to novel length by Kube-McDowell) and the result was surprisingly good if you weren’t a gun nut.

SF critics put the Clarke Collaboration Theorem on hold.

Now they’re ready to retire it for good as The Light of Other Days arrives in bookstores. While it doesn’t have a very different plot outline that the one already seen in The Trigger (indeed, the structure of both novels almost seem carbon-copied from one another) and is rather pathetic in terms of literary value, it’s a great read filled with ingenious ideas, a breathtaking conclusion and pure fun from cover to cover.

In other words, it does not suck.

The Light of Other Days‘s premise is not particularly original: Isaac Asimov’s classic story The Dead Past also posited the existence of a “remote viewer”, a machine that allowed you to see any scene from history from any point of view. (Indeed, Clarke and Baxter cite a few examples in the afterword without citing the Asimov text, which is rather unsettling given the popularity of the story and Clarke’s friendship with Asimov)

But, as always, it’s all in the treatment. Whereas Asimov’s story ended on the predicted doom of humanity through the end of privacy, Clarke/Baxter use this as a stepping-stone to more interesting things. As the capacity to see anywhere in history through the “WormCam” spreads through the population, investigative exploration of history takes off, religions are destroyed (hey, it’s a Clarke novel), historical figures are demolished or enhanced. Of course, there’s the end of privacy, last dying gasps of governments, general paranoia, new and exotic forms of perversions but guess what? Humanity endures, and how well it endures forms the strong conclusion of the novel, which manages to bring in the Eschaton without looking too silly doing it. Impressive stuff, any way you look at it.

As with The Trigger, the fun of this collaboration lies in the intellectual debate surrounding the WormCam. Ideas, concepts, extrapolations are described, sometime sketchily, but in such numbers that the ultimate effect on the reader is quite impressive. As in The Trigger, the novel loses strength whenever it tries to insert more classical plot conflicts in-between all the fascinating ideas. A gunshot-and-traitors conclusion is there to tie up some loose ends, but not to knock the socks off the readers; that’s the following chapter.

The overall result, again like The Trigger, is a compulsively readable (can be finished in less than a day) novel of ideas that faithfully follows the SF ethos of unflinching extrapolation. Due to the large historical component of the book, this might even be a good crossover novel for people not overly familiar with Science-Fiction.

And it destroys the Clarke Collaboration Theorem, which is a welcome piece of news indeed.

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