Fiction Reviews

The Clockwork Rocket: Orthogonal Book 1

(2011) Greg Egan, Gollancz, 14.99, trdpbk, 362pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09512-0


On an alien world Yalda lives on a farm and would have been destined for a life of rural simplicity were it not for her burning curiosity. Why do the stars look the way they do? What were the hurlers flying through the sky? Why do metal springs get heavier when relaxed? Yalda wants to know why the universe works the way it does. Despite discrimination and social taboos, Yalda gets the chance to study astronomy. However Yalda's world is threatened by the hurlers, for if one struck then that would be then end of the planet. Yet the number of hurlers in the night sky is increasing and so it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes.

There is one possible gamble they can take. If they can build a spaceship they may be able to travel very fast and close to the speed of light. The consequence of this will be that time on the ship will speed up and so while the ship could be in space for years or even decades, hardly any time will have passed on their home world. During this time the crew will research the hurlers problem and, hopefully, devise a solution.

Now before you go and say that all this is back-to-front that time would travel slowly on the ship travelling near the speed of light and not quickly you need to know that this novel is not set in our universe but a different one. Indeed it did cross my mind that this novel might have been set inside the Schwarzschild radius orbiting a super-massive black hole. Inside black holes are not meant to be part of our universe and in them the laws of physics break down. If this were so then Egan would be building on the premise underpinning Incandescence, whose splinter orbited a neutron star. If Yalda's world was inside a black hole then there is a chance that her ship might encounter others from our Universe. However here I am speculating wildly and the premise that Yalda's universe is different to our own is sufficiently rich a concept to keep SF readers entertained without my second-guessing Egan.

It has to be said that you really do have to be into hard SF and possibly physics in order to enjoy The Clockwork Rocket as the book is littered with info dumps that include many graphs and diagrams. Clearly Greg Egan has gone to a lot of trouble to create this alternate Universe and he is sharing the innards of his construction with us. Of course, as Egan points out in the book's afterward, his construction is not perfect but then in the real world we have already had generations of physicist trying to sort out the physics of our universe without managing to unify all the forces: we have no antigravity drive (yet).

As with the physics Yalda's species biology is also very alien.

Now, Greg Egan is known as a master of hard SF and his novels Quarrantine and Permutation City have both become minor SF classics. However unlike his previous novels this really is an SF novel mixed up with an exposition in universe-building with the story itself blatantly a vehicle for exploring the physics and biology of Yalda's space-time continuum and species respectively. There is nothing wrong in this. Granted it is different to traditional story-telling but then ground-breaking works are by their nature different. The question is whether or not this novel will attract a large number of readers. To be honest I simply do not know, but one thing of which I am assured is that this novel's set-up will be discussed for many years within SF circles.

Jonathan Cowie

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