The Clockwork Rocket: Orthogonal Book 1, by Greg Egan
In The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan demonstrates an ability to create genuine ‘otherness’, a quality that is all too rare in both science fiction and fantasy much of the time. It concerns a race that are totally unlike humanity – yet Egan does not set out to describe them, he writes from the point-of-view of central character Yalda as if the physiological capabilities, life cycle and social setup of her race are the most natural thing in the world, which of course they are to her. Over time, the details emerge naturally. This is a difficult trick to do, and it’s one that Egan extends to many aspects of the universe he has created.
Yalda’s planet is under threat – from the Hurtlers, a series of meteorites that are crossing the path of Yalda’s home world with increasing frequency. It’s only a matter of time before a Hurtler collides with the planet. As Yalda matures in to a scientist of exceptional vision and ability, it is her willingness to offer explanations for the Hurtler problem that also put her at the forefront of finding its solution. Because Yalda’s people are in many ways not technologically advanced, they must launch an expedition in to space that will give them time to develop technologies that can protect the planet from the Hurtlers – because in this universe, space travel in a certain direction away from the planet will allow the travellers hundred of years of development, and when they return home, only a handful of years will elapsed for those left behind.
Any scientists will at this point be scratching their head at this topsy-turvy interpretation of relativity, and that’s the real crux of this book: Egan has invented an entire universe that behaves fundamentally differently to ours. Many of the central tenets of physics are re-invented: relativity, entropy, time and space are all reworked. Heat and light are different to how we understand them too – it’s challenging, stimulating stuff. The problem for many readers may well be that Egan (or rather, Yalda) does spend a lot of time explaining it in a great deal of detail. With graphs. And diagrams. There are many segments where I confess I struggled to follow what was going on, and after a while I didn’t even try. Admittedly, the alt-science is central to the plot, but it also plays hell with the narrative flow.
Despite this major Marmite feature, Th Clockwork Rochet is a fascinating and compelling book and a rare example of a science fiction writer who does not define his vision in relation to our own universe and worldview.