“Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Vernor Vinge has developed into one of the greatest science fiction authors of the last few decades, despite producing barely more than a half-dozen full length novels in his career. His last three books have all won the Hugo award for the year they were introduced, and in two of those cases I can vouch that he produced works of startling depth, thoughtfulness, and creativity (I have yet to read Rainbow’s End). Vinge’s third novel, The Peace War, is not quite up to the standards of his more recent work, but it is still an above-average read that is worth spending a few hours on.
During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, humanity went through a series of trials that landed it in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, though one more interesting than the standard Mad Max-type. While in the midst of the long-anticipated Cold War showdown between the US and USSR, scientists develop a tool that can neutralize even the most powerful nuclear weapons being wielded by the two sides: the bobbler. The bobbler surrounds whatever it’s pointed at in a bubble that functions as a cross between an impenetrable force field and a pocket universe. Since there can be no interaction between the contents of a bobble and the rest of the world, it is the ultimate power; anything from a single soldier to an exploding nuclear bomb can be simply removed from reality.
Recognizing the power of their creation, the scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories don’t just give up their creation to the government that funded it so it can be used to win the war; they decide to create a new, post-governmental world. They force an end to hostilities by bobbling the forces of both sides of the ongoing war, along with all the remaining global powers, and replacing them with the Peace Authority. The Peace Authority is mainly concerned with making sure humanity never again reaches the point where it can destroy itself, and to ensure this doesn’t happen it uses the bobbler to eliminate not just dissidents and revolters but also the engineers, scientists, and technologists capable of producing advanced industry.
The Peace Authority’s enforced stability and stagnation lasts for fifty years before it is rocked by a new discovery: bobbles expire. For Paul Naismith, the penitent inventor of the bobbler who has lived in hiding during the Peace Authority’s rule, this discovery could be the wedge he needs to finally break the Authority’s grip on global power. He has long been at the head of the Tinkers, an underground group dedicated to trying to raise the level of technology and the standard of living for those oppressed by the Authority, and–along with his new apprentice Wili–may finally be able to give the Tinkers the technology they need to fight back.
The Peace War is somewhat of a throwback novel; to me, it feels like it was written during the golden age of science fiction, not in the mid-80’s. Vinge posits a new sufficiently advanced technology, then builds a world around the consequences of that technology. With one exception, there is little time spent on character development or deep philosophy or even an intricate plot. Instead it is more like a not-so-strong Star Trek episode where two sides fight over who will find the right combination of technobabble to come out on top.
The exception I mentioned is Paul Naismith himself. Though the story is told from Wili’s point of view, and Wili certainly plays a major role, Naismith is the only character with a real development arc that carries throughout the book. I kept picturing what would have happened to Dr. Oppenheimer had WWIII not only come to pass, but he was forced to live in the aftermath for the next fifty years, desperately trying to undo the effects of his work. This idea is enough to carry the book if you start to lose interest in exploring the mysteries of the bobble.
Beyond Naismith though, the characters are mostly uninteresting. Wili (to go back to Star Trek) fulfills the Wesley Crusher’s Magic Beans role, and the other supporting characters are fairly stock. Vinge uses a somewhat annoying non-linear device in several chapters at the beginning of the book, which–though I understand why he did it–I think could have been done better. As with Vinge’s other books, he sprinkles enough reality into his technobabble that readers with a college level understanding of computer science and higher mathematics will find some fun easter eggs, though understanding the references isn’t necessary to following the plot.
Overall, The Peace War is a fairly quick, fairly fun read that brings to mind some of the old raw science fiction; it creates a technological toy, manipulates it like a child with a Rubik’s cube, and provides just enough story structure to keep the whole thing from falling apart.