2,600 years of progress

I just finished The Dreaming Void, the first book in Peter F. Hamilton‘s Void Trilogy. Overall an excellent book, but I do have a nit to pick… a rather big one, in fact.

To provide some background: the Void Trilogy is set in the same continuity as Misspent Youth and the Commonwealth Saga, about 2,500 years after the former, 1,200 years after the latter, and close to 2,600 years after our time.

In this continuity, a person’s mind and memories is continuously recorded in an implanted memory cell, which can be transplanted into a force-grown clone to either rejuvenate or resuscitate that person; as a consequence, some characters from the Commonwealth Saga are still alive at the time of the Void Trilogy. In addition, it is possible for a person to download the contents of their memory cell into a sort of digital hive mind called ANA. ANA is not homogeneous, however: it is split into a number of factions, the most important being the Accelerators and the Conservatives, and is led by a group called ANA:Governance.

One of the principal characters in The Dreaming Void is a physicist and amateur historian named Troblum. In the latter capacity, he is obsessed with the Starflyer War depicted in the Commonwealth Saga. In the former capacity, he is working on a personal project to recreate an incredibly powerful starship engine once used by an ancient alien race involved in the Starflyer War. He finances this (clearly very expensive) project by working on shady projects for the Accelerator faction.

Just short of completion, Troblum’s project suffers a serious setback. Only hours later, an Accelerator agent arrives and promises Troblum sufficient funds to get the project back on its feet in exchange for Troblum’s participation in a new Accelerator project. Troblum smells a rat and stalls for time. He discovers that his manufacturing plant was in fact sabotaged, and that the only person who had the opportunity to do so was an engineer he hired on the recommendation of the Accelerator faction. He manages to repair the damage and complete the project in record time. Shortly afterward, he discovers that the Accelerators’ new project has crossed the line between “shady” and “completely illegal and immoral”. He decides to skip town and warn ANA:Governance.

Here’s where Hamilton makes a complete ass of himself. Obviously, Troblum needs a secure link to ANA:Governance. The problem, Hamilton tells us, is that in order to set up an encrypted channel, you have to send a copy of the encryption key to the other party. If you can’t meet them in person, the only way to do that is to split the key into fragments, send each fragment by a different route, and hope that nobody has sufficient resources to track them all down.

Needless to say, the Accelerators do have the resources, and are thus able to eavesdrop on Troblum’s conversation with ANA:Governance. On the bright side, ANA:Governance are somehow able to detect that the Accelerator faction has obtained a copy of the key. As the book comes to a close, the Accelerators race to prevent Troblum from escaping from their base, only to discover that he has already done so.

I know that most (if not all) of the technology described in the book is completely improbable and in flagrant violation of the known laws of physics. I’m willing to overlook that because it’s also incredibly cool, and that’s what space opera is all about. What I can’t overlook, however, is that over the course of 2,600 years, this incredibly advanced civilization, endowed with technology that is essentially indistinguishable from magic, has not only failed to develop equally advanced cryptographic mechanisms, but actually managed to forget everything we know today about cryptography, including such basic concepts as asymmetric cryptography and key-agreement protocols.

If only Troblum had been obsessed with the twentieth century instead of the twenty-fourth! He could have powered up his antique nineteen-nineties-era computer and sent ANA:Governance a PGP-encrypted email, instead of betting his life on security through obscurity.

6 thoughts on “2,600 years of progress

  1. Haven’t read the book but based on your post… Perhaps in the future they have the technology to break asymmetric/public private keys and only static keys/One Time Pad are secure?

    Cheers!
    Dan

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