(2001 / 2007) Greg Egan, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 281 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-8111-6
Schild's Ladder is one of the novels in the first grouping of Gollancz's new (2007) 'Future Classics' series. Having said that Schild's Ladder was only first published in 2001 so being only a little over a half a decade old whether or not it can be regarded as a classic is a bit of a moot point. For those of you who have not heard of the Australian writer Greg Egan, his best writing is in effect an ultra hard SF readers' wet dream. Those whose book diet is solely confined to fantasy can stop reading right here as Egan writes with the science backdrop very much in mind in his science fiction. Indeed while general hard SF readers can really get off on Egan, arguably it is those with a science background who can enjoy him the most as such folk can play the 'spot the border between science fact and science fiction' game. As such Greg Egan is very much an author for those for whom the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation especially caters.
So what is the story all about?
The book is divided into two parts. The first is short at just 34 pages but it sets up the rest of the story. In the far future, Cass has developed a new type of theoretical physics and she wants to see if it has any bearing on reality. To do this she travels (electromagneticly at light speed) to a remote research facility hundreds of light years away that is run by aliens who have created a particularly flat and stable region of space-time and a perfect vaccum. She is recreated in diminished size and the aliens agree to run her experiment. Unfortunately the experiment unleashes a field that contains a zone of a new type of vacuum and physics. The bummer is that this zone is expanding at half of the speed of light and threatens star systems and even, given time, the Galaxy and more. The good news is that the zone is expanding at half of the speed of light so it is possible to outrun it. Alas Cass (or the then active Cass version) is in the research facility at the time and not in a travelling ship nor in electromagnetic transit and so she gets swallowed by the expanding zone.
The second, larger part of the book concerns a research ship drifting along at a third of the speed of light in front of the zone's expanding border. Onboard are humans from a variety of colonised worlds, or rather their exact electronically managed copies embedded in miniaturised (to save mass and energy) biological approximations of themselves. They are researching the mysterious border to the even more mysterious, and threatening, expanding zone. Some are hoping to find away to destroy it. However others are more philosophical and say that it should be preserved as an exotic phenomenon for a variety of reasons. (You will find out all about these.)
So the above is the framework on which the novel hangs. Yet as with many of Egan's other novels it is not just the story (or, it must be said, the somewhat bland characters) but the future Egan portrays that is explored through the tale's telling. In this far future humans can slow-down as a computer can, and so kind of hibernate while the world (and universe) carries on. (A nifty trick if physically travelling between stars.) Alternatively they can back-up their minds so that if their body dies their mind can be implanted into another. This also means that their minds can enter cyberspace or receive and process information much like as in the film Matrix. I am sure that you are beginning to see the possibilities.
As mentioned earlier, for those into science it is possible to see if you can identify where the science ends and the fiction starts. (Or should that be vice versa?) Now I don't want to spoil this for any of you but I just have to give one example due to breaking real science news that undermines part of one of Egan's character's views....
"Conservation of charge is not the issue. Long after people could routinely prepare photons that were equally likely to be on opposite sides of a continent, why couldn't they manage to prepare a system that was equally likely to be an electron here and a positron here..."
(Quote taken a couple of dozen paragraphs from the end of chapter 7)
Well, just six years ago, when Egan wrote that, it was not possible to entangle an electron with a positron (the first step before separation and then action at a distance). However just this autumn we started getting quasi-stable (they don't last long) electron positron mixes with the creation of positronium! This is science proving that it really is stranger than science fiction. This is science saying come on Egan if you think you are hard enough. This is science saying to Geoff Ryman, are you really sure about this 'mundane SF' thing? For those who know there science this is challenging stuff! Well, for one I am glad that Egan is hard. And I also have to say I am glad that science is 'harder' and stranger than SF. (It is also why as a scientist I do not really go along with where the 'mundane SF' folk draw the line, as charming as is that chap Geoff Ryman.) But boy, do I enjoy well conceived hard SF that pushes the envelope.
Now the bad news. Gollancz -- bless their cotton socks for all the excellent work they do publishing SF in Britain -- have done a straight reprint. 'What is wrong with that?', I hear you cry. Well alas the Greg Egan references at the end contain some internet addresses. The good news is that net rot has not touched any of these except the last. The bad news is that the last address has changed. More good news, you can now get the same information from pages linking off this one: gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/SCHILD/SCHILD.html. Nonetheless this is the sort of thing one hopes an on-the-ball editor would have checked out. So Gollancz, please note for future reference.[Editorial note 2018: Actually, a decade on and Greg himself contributes with his own net-rot and the information is now at www.gregegan.net/SCHILD/SCHILD.html.]
OK, so hard SF nuts seek Schild's Ladder out, but if possible get one of the earlier (or a different) Gollancz edition to this 'Future Classics' one: the cover on this 2007 edition is unlaminated and the spine has raised lettering of white ink that tends to flake/rub off. (Gollancz should have stuck to reversing out the white from the colour of the cardboard.) This flaking is not welcome if you rely on what is on the spine for locating titles on your bookshelf. Fortunately the other books in this first clutch of the excellent Gollancz Future Classics do not have this problem. So I'll be giving this copy away as fortunately I have an earlier edition.
Another review of Schild's Ladder back from when it first came out can be found here.
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