Advanced technology, global politics, authoritarianism, monopoly power and centuries of struggle for liberty: An Appreciation of Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Real Time, the 1987 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society is celebrating in 2019, we are posting a series of weekly Appreciations of past Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our earliest Best Novel awards.

Here’s the seventh Appreciation for Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Real Time, following recent appreciations for novels by J. Neil Schulman, F. Paul Wilson, L. Neil Smith and James P. Hogan, No Award (the 1985 choice) and Victor Milan:

By William H. Stoddard

In 1985, Vinge’s The Peace War lost out to No Award in the Prometheus voting. In 1987, its sequel, Marooned in Realtime, was recognized as Best Novel — the first of several Best Novel and Hall of Fame awards to the author.

The Peace War had shown a market-oriented and anarchistic society in a future central California. But it wasn’t portrayed in detail, and existed within a larger world that was decidedly NOT libertarian, controlled by the repressive Peace Authority. And one of the viewpoint characters was a military officer who considered the libertarian society that Vinge sketched unsustainable.

In contrast, Marooned in Realtime’s characters look back to a past in which libertarian values had triumphed, and the central character is widely admired for his role in bringing down one of the Earth’s last states (a story told in “The Ungoverned,” a novella that won the LFS’s 2004 Hall of Fame Award).

The libertarianism stands out more.

The science fictional premise of both novels is the “bobble,” a perfectly spherical impenetrable force field that traps whatever it encloses.

In The Peace War, it was the basis for a “marvelous invention” story that explored its behavior and its impact on global politics. The great revelation of that story was that bobbles eventually opened, and that the people trapped by them hadn’t died as their air ran out, but went into temporal stasis until their bobbles burst.

Marooned in Realtime takes that same concept and makes it the basis for a novel of cosmic vision, as its characters leap forward over thousands or even millions of years. In a memorable passage, one (apparently) young woman complains of not being allowed to bobble, and feeling trapped in a world where the geography and the plant and animal species never change visibly.

This is akin to the experience of Wells’s Time Traveller entering a remote future Earth; but, for Vinge’s characters, the bobble is a ONE-WAY time machine. As a result of this, his characters, a small collection of human beings from varied backgrounds and eras, find themselves faced with a cosmic mystery: the disappearance of the rest of humanity from an era that they bobbled past, voluntarily or otherwise.

This situation sets up the novel’s OTHER mystery, one that drives the immediate plot: one of the emergent leaders of the remnant human population, Marta Korolev, is murdered by being prevented from bobbling when the rest of the human colony does so, leaving her trapped alone for the rest of her life. Finding the murderer, and preventing them from doing further harm, becomes the task of Wil Brierson, a policeman from an era of private enterprise law enforcement, aided by Della Lu, the former military officer from The Peace War.

In the course of their investigation, Brierson and Lu have to deal with survivals of non-libertarian political systems of the past—both the government of New Mexico, Brierson’s adversaries in “The Ungoverned,” and the Peace Authority. It’s worth noting that Vinge plays fair with his political situation, raising doubts about the nongovernmental monopoly power exercised by the Korolevs through their unique possession of advanced technology as a potential basis for authoritarianism.

Marooned in Realtime isn’t exactly a portrayal of a libertarian society — its future humans aren’t so numerous or so organized as to form a society of a specific type — but their conflicts reflect libertarian and other political ideologies.

With this book, Vinge gained recognition as a central figure in libertarian science fiction.

Vernor Vinge (Creative Commons photo)

Note: A Hugo finalist for Best Novel, Marooned in Real Time is the sequel not only to The Peace War (a 1985 Prometheus Best Novel finalist) but also to the novella “The Ungoverned,” inducted in 2004 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame. All three works were collected and republished together as Across Realtime.
In a rave review, Prometheus-winning writer Jo Walton (Ha’Penny) praised Marooned as a “brilliant” and tragic story about deep time, evolution, intelligence and how human narratives shape history and perception.
Vince, one of the more imaginative and brilliant sf writers to emerge in the 1980s-1990s and prophetic in his imaginative foreshadowing of the Internet and speculations about an approaching Singularity in human progress, also won the Prometheus Award for Best Novel in 2000 for A Deepness in the Sky and received a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014.

In his Prometheus-award acceptance speech (read by Baen Books editor Jim Baen at Cactuscon, the 1987 North American Science Fiction Convention), Vinge wrote:
“Speculative fiction provides a marvelous opportunity to speak of issues in an environment where readers are willing to give new and different ideas a chance. The Prometheus Award is a great encouragement to those who want to write good stories about the ideas of liberty and rights and wrongs.”

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40th Anniversary Celebration and appreciation of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: Victor Koman’s The Jehovah Contract, the 1988 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.

Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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