Across Realtime gathers together two novels and a novella previously published separately. In order of their appearance in Across Realtime the three works are: The Peace War [novel], The Ungoverned [novella] and Marooned In Realtime [novel]. The three works fit together like a book series of the type that is not a multi-volume novel, but are distinct stories in the same conceptual universe and employing some common characters. In this case, later stories in the series will refer to events and characters from earlier works in the series. Although a reader may not have much trouble following Marooned in Realtime if he has never read the preceding stories, he may have a fuller experience while reading Marooned In Realtime if he has read the other stories.
Although Across Realtime's three component parts do share a conceptual universe, some characters and future chronologies; they actually differ in their subgenres. The Peace War is a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk-ish story with a dystopian aspect. The Ungoverned is post-apocalyptic but doesn't necessarily so strongly feel that way. The Ungoverned isn't so clearly dystopian, and rather than being cyberpunk-ish, it leans more to military SF. Finally, Marooned In Realtime is more of a far future mystery. The remaining human population is very small, so some readers will feel something like a post-apocalyptic atmosphere, but it has much less in common with typical post-apocalyptic stories.
The Peace War by Vernor Vinge
The Peace War is sort of an atypical post-apocalyptic novel. War and plague have decimated the human population. A group of people associated with the Livermore Laboratory found a way to partition off areas inside spheres so they are no longer connected to our universe. They have used this method to "bottle" military installations and other facilities that they think could further threaten the human race. Organized as the Peace Authority, they have been the most powerful organized force on Earth for the last 50 years. Because they fear the possible uses of many kinds of technology, they have not encouraged new developments. The Peace Authority has also found it convenient to keep the size of countries relatively small. Between the small human population on Earth, the small size of countries, controls on technology and other factors, people tend to live at lower levels of technology and lower standards of living than we are used to today. Transportation using horses is common, for instance.
However, there are "tinkers" - scientists, engineers and other people working "gray market" and "black market" development and distribution of newer technology. One of them is an aging scientist, Paul, who helped develop the idea of the "bottles" at Livermore. He opposes the Peace Authority and is working on technology to counter them. He takes in a teenage boy, Willy, as an apprentice, and together they create new technologies. In this sense, the book is like cyberpunk in that it's about a small number of techies using computers and other tech against the dystopian government. (Personally, the Peace Authority did not strike me as being as self-serving, violent or evil as one might associate with “dystopian”. However, living in a horse-transportation society may help suggest the undesirability of the Peace Authority’s rule.)
There's also an espionage aspect. Someone in the tinker community gives the Peace Authority some information. After that, the two sides are struggling to learn each other's plans, hide what they know from the others, and figure out an end-game where their side can come out on top.
Paul and Willy figure out how to make relatively small, low-energy devices that can create "bottles". They hope to be able to use them to bottle the Peace Authority facilities, thereby allowing the re-growth of technology and society without Peace Authority control. But the Authority is closing in, leaving them little time to make the necessary arrangements.
Post-apocalyptic novels aren't my preferred kind of SF. And my reaction to cyberpunk varies. As a result, The Peace War started at a disadvantage for getting a good rating out of me. Depending on your tastes for those kinds of stories, you may have a different opinion.
The Ungoverned by Vernor Vinge
This novella is available free online: http://www.webscription.net/chapters/1416520724/1416520724___4.htm
The Ungoverned is more or less post-apocalyptic, as was The Peace War. There's a somewhat different feel for a few reasons. First, in The Peace War, the central characters were super-techies capable of doing almost anything with hi-tech. The Ungoverned doesn't have that cyberpunk-ish aspect. Its characters are private police agency men and the army of the Republic Of New Mexico. (There is a secondary character who is a techie.) The events in The Peace War take place mostly around cities or clandestine techie estates in California; in The Ungoverned, most of the action takes place out in the countryside of Kansas. The conflict has a more traditional military form - the New Mexico army with tanks and planes. The local resistance is not the techie network of The Peace War, but neither is it an organized army. It's certainly closer to military SF than to cyberpunk.
The story takes place in the same conceptual universe as The Peace War (but some years later). However, the story isn't more closely linked to the Peace War than that. Without the restrictions of the Peace Authority, new technology is out in the open and more easily available, but people are still living in most regards in a mid-20th century lifestyle. However, there's still nothing comparable to the United States.
The Republic of New Mexico has long claimed the right to land east to the Mississippi River and north at least as far as Kansas. Up until now, it has been too preoccupied with water wars in the south. As those wind down, it has now decided to send its army to take over these northern lands - until they get more than they bargained for in Kansas.
Will works for a private police force. (The area is “Ungoverned” – there are no government police.) Will’s company has presented him as an extraordinary policeman – an exaggeration. Faced with his limited resources (and his company’s inability to provide much more assistance), he has to find ways to discourage the New Mexico army as much as possible.
Marooned In Realtime by Vernor Vinge
The events in Marooned In Realtime take place 50 million years after The Peace War and The Ungoverned. What remains of humanity are those who used the "bottling" technology for something comparable to suspended animation. They had themselves put in "bottles" that would open a certain number of years later; during those years the people inside the bottle did not age. Sometime during the 23rd century, all humans not in bottles disappeared. There are no living witnesses or direct evidence of what happened. Many of those who had themselves bottled did not take bottling technology with them. As a result, they emerged into a world without other humans or technology - most of these people perished. As a result, the remaining human population is only in the hundreds.
It's an interesting mystery, but one with a wider scope and greater complexity than I'd prefer. Is Marta's death a murder over personal matters? Is it related to one of the various factional struggles between different groups of humans? Is it related to aliens that want to wipe out the human species?
There are divisions within the small human population: between those from different eras (different technology levels), between remnants of the Peace Authority and the Republic of New Mexico, between advocates of different explanations of what caused the disappearance of most humans in the 23rd century, between those who want to rebuild a substantial population now and those who want to fast forward through time, there may be different groups among the relatively hi-tech people over which hi-tech family should be dominant, etc.
Are the spaceships that sometimes come in like comets bringing hostile aliens? Are they just humans returning from long interstellar voyages? Are they mostly just lies by the guy claiming aliens caused the disappearance of humans in the 23rd century?
Is the character calling herself Della Lu really the former Peace Authority operative (from The Peace War) or an alien working to kill all humans?
What role is played by the guy who claims the 23rd century disappearance resulted from the seconding coming of Jesus – and that he is now the prophet of the third coming?
It’s a pretty tangled mystery. There is no Sherlock Holmes to solve it – only the policeman Will (from The Ungoverned).
The story doesn't finish with a simple disclosure of who killed Marta. And some of the wrap-up of inter-character dynamics didn't seem so convincing in its suggestions. What we learn about underlying factors brings the story to a point with potentials for which readers never get answers. It's clearly a less satisfying ending than a simple mystery in which there is nothing to resolve other than the identification of a single guilty individual. It would be unfair to compare a book with Marooned In Realtime's various aspects directly with those simpler books. However, some readers will feel the ending did not handle all the aspects in a way to maximize the book.
The book does link to the previous stories via re-appearing characters. It has the detective Will and members of the Republic Of New Mexico from the story The Ungoverned. It brings back Della Lu, members of the Peace Authority and members of the Korolev family from The Peace War.