(2002) Greg Egan, Gollancz, £10.99, pbk, 250pp, ISBN 0-575-07123-0
For twenty thousand years all observable cosmic phenomena have been bound by the Sarumpaet Rules of Quantum Graph Theory, but Cass has come up with a new way to test them. She travels three hundred and seventy light years to perform the test in Mimosa's 'Quietner', a construct that encloses a perfect vacuum. A baby universe is created that should collapse within a few picoseconds, but in an unexpected development it starts to expand at half the speed of light, devouring our universe as it grows. Six hundred years later many star systems have already been lost and the baby universe is the largest phenomenon in our galaxy. Tchicaya travels to the ship Rindler to join others studying the ever growing threat, but the scientists have split into two factions: the Preservationists, who seek to collapse the baby universe at any cost, and the Yielders, who believe it must be saved and studied as the only truly 'new' piece of physics to have come along in millennia. Is it possible that in a galaxy where only Earth has brought forth complex life that the phenomenon should be saved for even more compelling reasons? And can it be saved before someone takes unilateral action to destroy it?
If I were forced to compile a list of the best five SF authors currently writing, I would have no hesitation in placing Greg Egan joint first (with Bruce Sterling, if you're interested...). As an 'ideas man' he is second to none, throwing in neat stuff that other authors would stretch out into trilogies, but Greg is far more than that. He's been unfairly criticised for the kind of 'cardboard characters' reminiscent of the early days of SF, whereas in fact his characters are so far removed from everyday life that they can only be assessed on their own terms, in which they are completely convincing. Furthermore, Greg wrings drama and conflict from scientifically based situations by examining their complexity and beauty, without the need to throw in fights, action and emotional states that are barely credible in most fiction. Which is not to say that his fiction is lacking in these areas either, just that they arise naturally from the plot and do not appear contrived as in the books of so many others. This, Egan's seventh novel, is as compelling and fascinating as his earlier books, and I recommend them all to lovers of hard SF. For the scientifically minded Greg, as has become usual, has provided a reference list for further reading on the background to the science, and more info can be found at www.netscape.net.au/~gregegan/.
Since this review was first posted we have reviewed a number of Egan's novels including: Distress, Diaspora, Luminous and Teranesia.
Gollancz reprinted Schild's Ladder in 2007 as part of their 'Future Classics' series of reprints.
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