A World Out of Time by Larry Niven (1976)

When I was much younger I read with a hunger that was pathological, it was as if some part of me believed that books would decay almost as soon as they were bought and it was therefore necessary to consume them as quickly and completely as possible.

So as I entered my teen years I began to collect books (apparently they didn’t actually decay that quick), they became a comfort to me and in a habit that now strikes me as slightly odd I would carry my favourite books around with me in a green tin that was decorated in stickers of Pac-Man characters.

My first literary love was science fiction, as it probably is a lot of boys, and it wasn’t until my mid teens that the horror bug bit (though it did bite hard). During these few years I worked my way through a huge amount of books; only the barest few of which I still remember.
One of these is Larry Niven’s A World Out of Time.

Re-reading it lately I can see so many reasons this book caught my attention and why it spoke to the early teen Alan so strongly. The books protagonist, Jerome Corbell, cryogenically freezes himself in the year 1970 (the year of my birth) only to wake up in 2190 with his mind inside the body of a mind-wiped criminal.

Corbell has no rights, legally having died so many years before and he finds himself a slave of a government known only as The State. The State trains him to be the pilot of a Bussard Ramjet and he is sent on a mission to seed lifeless worlds and begin a process of terraforming; but Corbell revolts and steals the ship, taking course to see the centre of the galaxy on the ultimate sight-seeing tour.

So begins an adventure that spans millions of years as the relativistic speeds the ramjet reaches extends Corbell’s life and the universe he wakes to, once again, changes beyond understanding.

Though A World Out of Time is one of Niven’s lesser works (basically if it isn’t Ringworld, no one seems to have heard of it) the book was probably my introduction to hard sci-fi. Which is to say that unlike much of the science fiction that makes it to our TV’s and cinema screens this kind of sci-fi is rooted in scientific theory that can be researched and understood as true science.

A World Out of Time acts more as a time travel story as it does a space exploration one. As Corbell is thrown forward into the future he looses any control and is buffeted back and forth by the social forces he finds there. In many ways this is reminiscent of H. G. Well’s The Time Machine, with the added issue that Corbell, unlike Time Machines unnamed time traveller, has no way of returning home, making this a “fish out of water” story at its bleakest.

A common criticism of Niven’s book is that it is short on description and character development, and though both these complaints are true I find it a positive aspect of the work. The lack of any backstory for Corbell, as well as any deep exploration of this character, allowed me to imprint myself into the character in the same way I would in a roleplaying game.

The lack of description is an odd thing, as before I read the complaint it had never occurred to me.

It made me wonder if those who had made such a complaint had well developed imaginations, or whether they were people who needed more hand-holding than I did through the story. Essentially that’s all too often what descriptions are, they are virtual hand holding where the author either believes that their vision is so unique that it needs elaborating on or where they believe that their audience requires help in the imagination department.

I’ve never needed help in the imagination department.

This isn’t to say I have any issue with authors, who enjoy the process of descriptive writing, and it isn’t to say I don’t enjoy it; this is just to say it’s not a deal breaker for me if it isn’t there.

As long as there’s a story or a character that holds my attention everything else is just icing.

A World Out of Time allows the reader to use the character of Corbell as a kind of avatar into this infinite universe where time no longer seems to exist. The characters flirt with death constantly but they are never cowed by it. Death becomes something that is there to be overcome with the distortion of time through the faster than light travel of the Bussard Ramjet.

Originally I read this work when I was barely in my teens, at a guess I’d say I was thirteen or fourteen, and as I re-read the book approaching my half a century on this planet I find a lot of what struck me originally about this book still remains.

Corbell is called a tourist in the story, someone who observes life but is not really a part of it and this idea is visited again and again throughout the book. He is interested in other people and the world around him but he does not need either and it is only after millions of years of solitude that his interest in others develops into any kind of need for them.

I think this was what interested me in the book. Corbell was much like me as a child; I was insular and looked on the world with the eyes of a tourist of sorts. As I have grown older I have not developed anything that could be described as a “need” for other people but I have certainly learned to enjoy the company of others, at least within moderation.

The weight of time that I felt as a child has stayed with me, and I wonder how much of this is dues to this book and others like it. This is not a negative thing, far from it, an understanding of how fleeting time is and how easily that which we hold dear can be lost is a good thing; it breeds appreciation of the moment and it gives the moment weight.

Nothing has the same weight in your life as something you know you can loose at any moment.

Corbell does not know this initially, it is something he learns but it is only when his selfish need for companionship forces him to learn it. The thirteen year old me was ahead of Corbell, or perhaps it was Corbell’s foolishness that allowed me to learn this lesson earlier than many do.

For all its simplicity and for all those, quite accurate, criticisms against the book I found A World Out of Time to be a profound experience both as a man and as a child.

Now all I need to do is figure out which of those things I am right now; man or child, and whether it matters in the big scheme of things.

Leave a Reply