Marooned in Realtime (1986) by Vernor Vinge

Don't miss out on other works by Vernor Vinge:
True Names (1981) Book Review
Available works by Vernor Vinge


Set 50m years in the future on Earth, following an extinction event in the 23rd Century, Marooned in Realtime is the second and final book in Vernor Vinge’s Realtime series (1984-1986). Vinge’s writing has played a pivotal role in the development of singularity literature – having first introduced the concept in True Names (1981) – and Marooned in Realtime which further fleshes out the concept remains an important work in the history of sf as well as in the history of ideas.

The story follows the few hundred survivors of a largely unexplained 23rd Century extinction event referred to as the Extinction or Singularity. Encapsulated in spherical stasis fields called ‘bobbles’, ‘bobblers’ can ‘travel’ into the future simply by remaining in stasis for an indefinite amount of time, the sealed sphere protecting them from the outside environment. Now, 50m years in the future, the few surviving bobbles can largely be divided into high-techs and low-techs, a result of the specific time at which they originally bobbled out. The main high-tech group, the Korolevs, is trying to bring together the remaining stranded bobbles in an attempt to restart humanity. The quest to understand the Extinction event gets tied up with the murder of Martha Korolev who was prevented from entering her group’s bubble before it was sealed and thus left to maroon in real-time.

Non of the surviving bobblers actually experienced the 23rd Century Extinction, but those who bobbled out after a certain date in the 23rd Century report that humanity had all but disappeared with no trace of an explanation. While High-tech archaeologist Juan Chanson, who has spent thousands of years studying the cause of the Extinction, believes that humanity was murdered by an alien invasion, Della Lu, also a high-tech, believes that there was no Extinction, merely a period of accelerated growth where mankind migrated to a different, non-biological plane and eventually bobbled out, a scenario that Greg Egan pursues in Diaspora (1997). There are also those who believe that humans committed suicide, simply because humanity – they believe – was destined for self-destruction. 

The exact time at which the different high-tech groups bobbled out provides an important clue to the mystery. They bobbled out within only 15 years of each other –  2195, 2200 and 2210 respectively – and were later to emerge from their bobbles with radically different levels of technology. In other words, Earth in this short time span must have been undergoing a period of exponential technological growth. Was this an AI take-off phase? In 1993 Vinge delivered a speech at the Department of Mathematical Sciences, San Diego State University, titled The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human:

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

“When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities – on a still-shorter time scale.”

The causal link between extinction and AI singularity also ties in with high-tech Della’s exploration of the galaxy. Despite having spent 9,000 years looking for intelligent life, she has found scant proof thereof and typically only in the form of vanished civilizations. It is as if Vinge is providing an explanation for the Fermi Paradox, saying that intelligent life is destined for self-destruction.

While the dangers of a technological singularity were incorporated as major themes by authors such as William Gibson, David Zindell and Dan Simmons, it is also integral to today’s public discourse on AI, notably Oxford University scholar Nick Bostrom’s hugely influential non-fiction book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014).