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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"The Clockwork Rocket" by Greg Egan (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Greg Egan Website
Order "The Clockwork Rocket" HERE or HERE (drm free multiformat ebook)
Read the First Seven Chapters HERE

INTRODUCTION: While contemporary sf is very diverse, encompassing everything from space opera to near-future to alt-history and steampunk, when I think of "pure sf" as the genre has originally evolved to intermix scientific speculation with literature, there are only two authors of today that stand at the top and one of them is Greg Egan whose superb far-future novels like Incandescence, Schild's Ladder or Diaspora combine the cutting edge of today's science with entertaining story-lines. Also Mr. Egan's short stories which are combined in several collections, most notably Luminous, Oceanic, Dark Integers and Crystal Nights and contain some of the most mind-blowing sf at short length that I've ever read, are mileposts of today's genre.

I have read almost all of Mr. Egan's work from the first novels like Permutation City and Quarantine to his prodigious short fiction output with only the two notable exceptions of his near future novels (Teranesia and Zendegi) which are of less interest for me and I never failed to be blown away by his ability to put the most abstract and farthest reaching concepts of modern science in a story that entertains and moves.

So when I read about his planned new series that takes place in a "Riemannian universe", one where the metric - the math concept that encodes the basic physics of the universe - is positive definite and symmetric in space and time as opposed to the indefinite antisymmetric metric in the Einsteinian universe we seemingly inhabit, I was truly intrigued and indeed The Clockwork Rocket was what I expected and more and so far it is my all around top novel of the year for the combination of sense of wonder, great world building, characters and general "human interest" - the shape-shifting, weird biology aliens of The Clockwork Rocket are both strange and familiar and the story of the main character Yalda is as emotional as any I've read this year...

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "The Clockwork Rocket" is the perfect sf novel and a clear example why sf is still my favorite genre; on the one hand there is sense of wonder given by the speculative but informed exploration of an universe with definite though different laws of physics than ours, on the other hand the book flows on the page and it has in Yalda one of the best main characters in recent memories, while the supporting cast is well drawn and distinctive.

The protagonists of the story are strange: the metric of the universe requires complex molecules to be really complex so to speak, so all life is shapeshifting; our heroes are six limbed shapeshifters, symmetric in 3D in their "normal" form - so they have eyes both back and front for example - that emit light, sleep in beds dug in the ground to cool down - though of course the well off in cities have special cooled beds.

They reproduce by the mother being divided into four - two twin pairs, each usually forming a new reproducing couple, though there are the occasional solos like Yalda and the social misfits mostly female, that run away from their twin, not to speak of the usual hardships of life that prevent exponential overpopulation from the generational doubling above, while the longer lived men are conditioned to take care of the children...

A harsh universe with unstable matter, but also a culture of cities, science, technology, society, books, philosophers, scientists... The people in this universe are "not us" and in some ways are very strange due to their biology - "being able to fly is like being able to know your mother" is one of the simple proverbs that appear in the book - but they are also "us" in the ways that matter. So The Clockwork Rocket is a pitch perfect example of how to imagine aliens that are not "costume aliens" ie pseudo-humans with one human characteristic expanded to usually grotesque proportions a la Star Trek species, but that are similar enough that we understand and care about them...

The book follows the "solo" Yalda - ie she "ate" her twin in the womb as the other "normal" children tease her - from a farmer family but who is lucky enough to have a father who appreciates learning and who has promised Yalda's mother to school any of the offspring that shows inclination. So despite being almost twice as big as the normal female - and females are considerably bigger than males here for obvious biological reasons - and not expected to reproduce - ie be quartered in four - in the usual age range due to the lack of a twin mate, so being potentially of huge help on the family farm, Yalda gets to go to school and later is admitted to the university in one of the cities that form the civilization of the planet.

Soon she starts rewriting the physics books by some ingenious experiments, while becoming involved with a group of "liberated" professional females who had learned how to extend their lives and avoid the harsh fate nature destined for them, since even if they do not mate, there is "spontaneous" reproduction and the chances of such increase drastically with age, while the special drug that prevents it, needs to be taken in larger and larger doses...

And then of course comes the main story we read about in the blurb with the orthogonal stars, the threat to Yalda's civilization and the crazy solution she and some of her friends come up with...

So there is discovery, drama, even the stirrings of social change, while in the second part of the book the pace accelerates and the book becomes a true sf classic of people learning to cope with new, challenging and unforeseen circumstances, while Yalda's saga continues towards its clear conclusion. The novel moved me deeply too and I *really* want the second installment to see where the story goes next since there is ample scope for surprises and the author surely did not show his full hand about his exploration of this wonderfully imagined universe.

Overall, The Clockwork Rocket (A++) is the one sf novel I strongly recommend to read if you want to understand why the genre has fascinated so many people for so long. Even if you are confused at the beginning by the seemingly familiar but actually strange people of the book, keep reading since things will start making sense soon and the story is captivating from the first page till the superb but emotional last paragraph...

"When Yalda was almost three years old, she was entrusted with the task of bearing her grandfather into the forest to convalesce.


After squeezing and prodding the old man all over with more hands than most people used in a day, Doctor Livia announced her diagnosis. “You’re suffering from a serious light deficiency. The crops here are virtually monochromatic; your body needs a broader spectrum of illumination.”


Anonymous said...

Who is the other one beside Egan, Peter Watts, or Stross in his Accelerando mode?

Liviu said...

Nope; Alastair Reynolds is the other sf writer that truly knows his s in sf; Watts is very good in his biology, no question about it, but I am thinking here of the big natural philosophy picture in the style of say Roger Penrose Road to Reality

Anonymous said...

Currently $3.99 in US Kindle store.

Ron Buckmire said...

I'll try and check this out. I'm surprised you didn't reference Asimov's The Gods Themselves since that is the canonical example of aliens who form single identities from multiple life forms.

I'm a huge fan of Alastair Reynolds, but threw away Accelerando after a few chapters as unreadable.

Liviu said...

I see what you are saying about The Gods Themselves but here it is different - there they meld, here they split; this results in vastly different cultures.

The biology of the aliens is one the things I really look forward to see explored in the enxt installment since the questions of the role of the father, of why there are always (with the rare exceptions of singles like Yalda) exactly two pairs of two, how the math works and they do not get into geometric overpopulation,etc are hinted vaguely but the series clearly moves towards that; this book is in a way the physics and a little of the chemistry of the universe...

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