Fiction Reviews

The Arrows of Time: Orthogonal Book 3

(2013) Greg Egan, Gollancz, 16.99, trdpbk, 360pp, ISBN 978-0-575-10576-8


The colony within the mountain spaceship is now in its 6th generation. But their allegiance to their original mission (to develop a solution to the hurler meteorites threatening their home world) is wavering.

Due to the strange laws of the very different universe in which this story is set, their fast spaceship's relativistic effects mean that generations have passed onboard while only a year or so has transpired on their home world. If they wanted, they could risk the hazardous turn-around to go to the world of their distant forebears, or they could continue in comparative safety: they might even settle some of the strange worlds they encounter.

A compounding problem is that one of the relativity quirks, in this different space-time continuum, is that travelling back will mean they could (if they wanted to) build a detector to receive light (hence messages) from their future selves. This further splits the crew for if they knew that they returned safely to their home world then that would force the argument towards those wanting to complete their mission. Conversely, if they learnt they would fail, not only would the argument go the other way, if doom was involved then how could they avoid the fate their future told?

It is difficult to review the final book in a trilogy without unduly giving away spoilers, and The Arrows of Time is the final volume of Egan's 'Orthogonal' trilogy that began with The Clockwork Rocket. So seek that out before you read this one. Having said that, if like me you were unsure of the whether or not the first book was going somewhere meaningful for SF readers then let me assure you now that it is. I should say that the reason I was unsure of the trilogy with the first book was that that book not only had to establish the characters and the story, it also had to explain Egan's very strange yet scientifically logical (as far as these things can be in an SFnal sense) universe. You see Greg Egan is not among the very best of storytellers, but he most certainly tells among the very best of stories. Add this to the necessarily info-dump rich nature of the trilogy and you can see that matters so easily could have gone pear-shaped. However with The Arrows of Time he seems to have pulled things off!

Not only do we get a continuation of the story, and a further filling out of the science underpinning this universe, but along the way we get a fair dollop of adventure and bags of sense of wonder (sensawunda). One of the earliest incidences of the former regards a rogue space pod necessitating it being chased by another pod in a sequence vaguely 2001: A Space Odyssey-ish reminiscent. And as for the sensawunda, I really enjoyed the chapters checking out the potential of a world for possible colonisation given that there time sort of flowed backwards with effects coming before cause. Very weird, and very difficult to convey, but Egan pulled it off providing us with a set of chapters that might easily have been written with Stanislaw Lem peering over his shoulder.

Now this is not the easiest of books or indeed trilogies to read. But then again worthy challenges are never easy and this trilogy is both worthy and a challenge. It has to be said that this book is a hard SF buff's delight, and those that do not relish a sound scientific veneer covering their reading may well find this impenetrable. Indeed there were times in which my bio-phile self speeded through some of the (for me less engaging) maths-physics bits. But this did not matter: I had taken in more than enough of previous info-dumps to easily get the gist, and if the story was cracking on then I really wanted to get back to that. At the end of the day I am more than ever convinced, as I said in my review of the first book The Clockwork Rocket, that this novel will attract the attention of genre aficionados and be discussed by them in years to come. After all, it is a story not just set away from Earth, away from the Solar System, or far from the Galaxy: it is set in another universe with very different laws of nature. How cool is that?

Jonathan Cowie

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