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The Clockwork Rocket (Orthogonal Book 1) by Greg Egan

01/03/2012. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy The Clockwork Rocket (Orthogonal Book 1) in the USA - or Buy The Clockwork Rocket (Orthogonal Book 1) in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 362 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 14.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-09512-0).

check out websites: www.orionbooks.co.uk and www.gregegan.net

Greg Egan is an Australian author well known for his hard Science Fiction novels and short stories. ‘The Clockwork Rocket’, the first volume in his ‘Orthogonal’ trilogy, may just be his hardest SF novel yet, given the amount of background physics available on his website. Is it a good story though?

The novel is set in a different universe from our own, where the underlying physics is slightly altered from the rules that pertain here. Although the maths underlying the change is simple, the consequences are profound. We find this out in the first chapter when our protagonist Yalda, an awkward pre-schooler, is asked to help take her ailing grandfather to the forest a couple of days walk away, to convalesce from his illness. Yalda’s race are truly alien, with eyes in the front and back of their heads, the ability to reshape their bodies at will and a very different mode of reproduction from our own. Children are born when the mother’s body metamorphoses, splitting into four quarters which become her children, comprised of two pairs of twin boys and girls. The mother literally dies for her children and the father then brings them up. Yalda is different because she is an anomaly. Her mother’s pregnancy went wrong, splitting her into a half and two quarters. Yalda came from the undivided half, so is twice normal size and ungainly with it. However, this makes her of great practical use, which is why she is asked to carry her grandfather to the forest. When they get there, he goes to sleep, falls into a coma and finally dies by being transformed into an explosion of heat and light from which Yalda and her father only just escape. This is an early indication that Yalda’s world works rather differently from our own.

Yalda’s physique seems to mark her out for a life of manual labour in her extended family’s farming business. However, her father recognises her innate intelligence and sends her to school instead. This is not something that is routinely done with girls, since society expects them to marry early, have children and die. She does well at school, goes on to university in the capital Zeugma and eventually becomes a physicist and astronomer.

The study of physics in Yalda’s world seems to be at around the level that humanity reached in the late nineteenth century, shortly before the twin revolutions of relativity and quantum theory overturned much of classical physics. In the same way, Yalda and her colleagues are busy trying to understand the basic underpinnings of physics and chemistry in their world, where light seems to be generated by almost every chemical reaction and each star in the sky is not a sharp pinpoint, but an extended mini-rainbow, with red light at one end and violet at the other.

However, Yalda’s astronomical investigations are interrupted by the increasingly frequent appearance of the so-called Hurtlers, large meteorites that generally burn up in the atmosphere. When Yalda decides to observes a Hurtler carefully, she is left with a worrying conclusion. These things are travelling fast enough that a large one could destroy their world completely. At first, no-one believes her. When, however, a large Hurtler smashes into one of their star system’s outer planets, turning it into a miniature star, people finally start to take Yalda’s warnings seriously.

A colleague of Yalda’s comes up with a radical plan to solve the problem. The way physics works in their universe, if you accelerate a spaceship fast enough in the right direction, time will stand still at home while the ship is away, looking for a way to deal with the Hurtlers. So those on board the ship can take as long as they need to find a solution and when they return, the planet should still be in one piece.

As she was the one to identify the problem, Yalda ends up being the one to look for the solution, too. So she heads out into the unknown, not sure what she’s looking for but hoping she’ll recognise it when she sees it. Trouble is, being the captain on board this ship of discovery presents challenges enough to rival anything the Hurtlers can throw at them. Before long, Yalda wonders whether she’ll live long enough to discover the nature of the Hurtlers or whether she is destined to be deposed or assassinated by her ambitious second-in-command.

‘The Clockwork Rocket’ is a hugely ambitious novel. Egan has set himself the task of exploring through a story the consequences of changing the laws of physics that we know and love in one crucial respect. He has done this rigorously, as the ‘DVD extras’ on his website can attest. He wants the reader to understand the ideas, too, so illustrates them with diagrams and graphs throughout the book. This is, to say the least, pretty unusual in a work of fiction. If you have no interest in the study of science then this will probably be enough to put you off this novel. If, on the other hand, you have read a few popular science books or did a science subject at A-level or at university, then you should have no problem with Egan’s exposition of the physics. If you do have any problems with the theory, do stick with it. It’s definitely worth it.

This is not just a book about theoretical physics, though. Yalda is a three-dimensional character whom I came to admire and like. She has always been an outsider, both because of her unusual size and keen intellect. The bigotry she faces throughout her life is well depicted and her response is all too human. More generally, the novel is full of interesting characters with real desires, hopes and flaws, while the plot is multi-layered, complex and gripping.

My only criticism of the book is that it is a game of two halves. The first half concerns Yalda’s life on her home planet, up till the point when they launch her rocket into space. The second half concerns the challenges she faces on board that rocket. Once they lift off, she knows she will never see anyone down on the ground again, because their mission will take longer than she is likely to live. Equally, while the rocket is travelling in the orthogonal direction, no time passes for the people back at home, so they are essentially in suspended animation for the second half of the book. This is inherent in the way the story has been set up but it does mean that the only continuity between the two halves of the book comes in the form of Yalda herself.

‘The Clockwork Rocket’ is a challenging but extremely rewarding hard SF novel. I thoroughly enjoyed both the story and the physics. If you are at all interested in scientific speculation, then I would strongly encourage you to read it. Even if you’re not, read it anyway. I’m very much looking forward to the next volume, ‘The Eternal Flame’, which is due out this autumn.

Patrick Mahon

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