Final Days by Gary Gibson

Final Days by Gary Gibson

You might like this book if you enjoy:

  • action-filled thriller type plots
  • time travel
  • science fiction stories with philosophical implications, but not too much
  • doom and apocalypse

Keep reading if you would like to know my thoughts on Final Days in a context of hard science fiction. 

The last third or so of Final Days was a fun read, but for a hundred pages in the middle I kept reading mostly for the grazing cars. Cool gadgets help a lot when I fail to feel really involved in the plot.

As the title reveals, it's a story about the end of a world. A mysterious alien artefact is lost, and those who know about it have reasons to believe that it's going to destroy all life on Earth. At the same time, there are political tensions over the access to the wormhole technology that allows transfer to the space colonies in other star systems. The array of wormhole gates is located on the moon, and controlled by the very powerful organisation Array Security and Immigration (ASI), based in the Western Coalition. Saul Dumont is an ASI agent who gets involved in it all, partly as a consequence of his failures.

I found Saul a somewhat colourless character, despite his mild drug addiction and his personal problems. He thinks he is investigating the sabotage of the gate to the Galileo colony, where his wife and daughter live. For ten years, no-one has been able to travel between Earth and Galileo, and Saul is eager to find out who is responsible for separating him from his family. What his superiors really want to get is details about the imminent destruction and its cause, and therefore Saul finds himself at the centre of the events threatening billions of people. There is a lot of action and violence, but I didn't really care about Saul himself.

He gets more interesting in the second half of the book, when he interacts with people in situations not always involving a lot of running and fighting, and reveals more complex feelings. And he gets to ride a Saturn rocket, which is actually kind of cool in a future where very few actually travel through space.

Flynn, Michael Wreck of the Rivers of Stars, The (Firestar #5) The Cold Equations & Other Stories  by  Godwin, Tom Peter F.  Hamilton, Commonwealth Saga  Hyperion (Hyperion #1)  by Dan Simmons

That detail with the Saturn rocket struck a chord in me, which made me a bit worried. There is a strong streak of nostalgia in some flavours of hard science fiction, with authors who clearly seem to think that the future was better in the past. I'm talking about the kind of technology romanticism that seems uncomfortable with the developments in society and comes together with a certain political conservatism. Like Michael Flynn in Firestar. He describes a return to space coupled with a kind of soft revolution that transforms our whole culture, art and literature and everything, to something easier and more understandable. The effect is to make him look like he skipped a couple of decades and just cannot comprehend the world he lives in. I'm not sure I want to be like that. Still, I can't help being charmed by the old fashioned rocket. It makes a wonderful contrast between the easy everyday travel between celestial bodies in the portrayed future, and the much more heroic (i.e. uncomfortable) journeys of the early space pioneers.

Also, Gary Gibson avoids getting overtly nostalgic about the Right Stuff, and never gets ideologically annoying. (There are actually interesting post-colonial issues in this future, where the wormhole technology gives the Western Coalition control over the colonies, while the Pan-Asian Congress demands equal control and their own gates. I like it when Earth is described as a whole, multi-faceted planet.)

Still, Final Days is definitelyhard SF. The story is much more about the physics of wormhole gates and the technology of the future, and about time travel paradoxes and free will and the destiny of humanity, than about a few specific characters. Perhaps the most memorable person in the story is the elderly Amy, who together with her husband runs the space tourism company owning the Saturn replica rocket. That Amy makes a reference to a "cold equation" tells us that Gary Gibson very much knows that he's a part of the conversation in hard science fiction. ("The Cold Equations" is a much debated short story by Tom Godwin, first published in 1954.) The story is also full of action and suspense. Will mankind survive? And at the end, I actually cannot be sure that Saul did the right thing. It's an interesting situation. I must say that I also enjoyed the attempt at exposing the inherent problems with wormhole travel. This is a very commonly used trope in science fiction. One example is how Peter F. Hamilton uses wormholes to connect the planets in his Commonwealth universe, another is the "farcasters" in Hyperion by Dan Simmons that allow the river Tethys to cross several planets. Still, the fact that this kind of faster-than-light travel allows for certain kinds of time travel and all sorts of paradoxes is usually just forgotten. In Final Days the gates are even called CTCs, for "closed timelike curves", a term referring to the description of a phenomenon like a wormhole within the theory of relativity. Don't worry about the details, Gary Gibson is not weighing down the story with lengthy explanations, but it's still an important plot point. (There's the conversation again. Science fiction collectively exploring common tropes.)

I also found it sort of refreshing to read about a future with recognisable humans and technology in the year 2235. The augmented reality of Final Days is not very far from what we can do now, with a smart phone, but much more integrated with daily life. Most people wear contact lenses containing their personal data ("ubiquitous profile", including money) and communications device. They also display the desired amount of information and helpful instructions in the wearer's field of view.

It's not our immediate future, but still a world just a step beyond ours. No backups of your personality, no quasi-magical nanobot utility fogs, no emerging intelligences on the internet, no singularity. I guess I sometimes get a bit tired of those things, and like variation.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the grazing cars was another piece of future technology that I found fascinating. Kind of cute, but a bit incongruous with the rest of the worldbuilding. It actually doesn't seem to be a very good idea.

A second hire car was parked near Jeff's own, where it shuffled closer to the verge and began tearing up the same patch of grass, sucking the biomass deep into its guts prior to converting it to ethanol.

Can you imagine hauling around large amounts of concentrated biomass for the cars to eat -- instead of just bringing the ethanol from a centralised distillery? And how do you deal with the waste? You know what a street looks like where horses are used.

Still, if it hadn't been for the cars I might have stopped reading before getting to the good parts. That's hard SF for you.