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The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan, Book 1 in the Orthogonal series (Night Shade Books, 2011), has proved to be an experiment too far for me. Over the years, I’ve read and, for the most part, enjoyed Greg Egan’s short stories. When I mentioned his name, however, there were always faintly worried expressions from those who know me. I never asked why. They might tell me I was looking even closer to death than usual. So I was left with an optimistic view that here was a hard-SF writer who actually produced accessible fiction, albeit only in the short form. For the record, I need to interject a small historical note. I gave up on physics rather more than fifty years ago. I found electricity experiments like the wheatstone bridge alarming — even rewiring a plug was challenging for me — and the suggestion I might apply anything more than basic addition and subtraction from the maths realm was enough to induce intellectual anaphylactic shock. Put simply, top-class boffins had only just invented the transistor when this old dog was trying to recreate Pepper’s Ghost, so the notion of anything actually amounting to cutting-edge physics was, and remains, completely alien to me.

At this point, it’s perhaps convenient to show the amount of background work Greg Egan has done to create this universe: Orthogonal Background Notes. It would be alright if it was written in Greek. I was good at Greek at school. But seeing the detailed work invested before actually sitting down to write the story is one of the most dispiriting things it has been my misfortune to encounter. My long-suffering friends were right. This type of book is not for me. Anyone who has to insert graphics into the text to explain what’s going on has lost the battle for my attention. If it can’t clearly be expressed in words anyone of ordinary intelligence can understand, nothing diagrammatic is going to help. By my standards, it’s not proper fiction.

So, here we have a strange bunch of aliens. I admit complete ignorance as to the nature their world. All I can say about it with any degree of certainty is that it does appear to go round a sun. As to the locals, they have a distinctive process of reproduction which depends on either the gynogenesis or parthenogenesis of the females. This leaves single dads with the responsibility of bring up the twins or quads. It’s very unusual for a solo or a triple to be produced. Needless to say, this has produced an extreme patriarchalism with women not only expected to be generally subservient, but “wives” treated as property and, as runaways, subject to forcible return to their “husbands” by enthusiastic male police officers. It’s all magnificently Victorian in the Regina v Jackson sense. This was a case in 1891 in which a husband kidnapped his wife who had refused to live with him and forcibly detained her in the “matrimonial home”. The Court of Queen’s Bench refused habeas corpus to free her, confirming a husband, “. . .had a right to the custody of his wife unless he uses it for some improper purpose. . .” This was the last time habeas corpus was refused as the Court of Appeal changed the law to assert a wife’s right to personal freedom. One small step towards equality.

Anyway, in this fictional society, our heroine, Yalda, is a solo born into a remote farming community. But she proves to have a big brain to go with the outsize body and is soon moving up through the academic ranks. On the way, she encounters the usual backbiting from jealous peers and intimidated lecturing staff. This is aggravated by her status as a female solo. To keep her from spontaneously producing two or four children and therefore ceasing to be a thorn in the sides on all those who would banish her from their equivalent of the ivory (red) towers, she takes a “contraceptive”. Thus fortified, she proceeds to identify a possible threat to her world. In fact, she has time to work out the science of it while lying in a jail cell for assaulting the son of someone politically powerful. Now there’s a literal and metaphorical division of labour required. A close friend divides leaving the question of who will assume responsibility for the children’s upbringing. And then there’s the need to convince the authorities it will be necessary to produce a “rocket” to take some people away from, and then back to, wherever it is they are. Somehow this will ensure life can continue. In the midst of what follows as our little band of doomsayers tries to rally public support, is some discussion of temporal causality which I more or less followed, but all this physics, particularly when it gets into what I take to be relativity, is just beyond me. We have the usual attempted sabotage as we come up to the launch and then the ethical problem of what to do with the misguided saboteur. All this is predictable as is the physical confusion when they encounter zero gravity. Growing food when the plants don’t know which way is up is a challenge.

So what this comes down to is that these people live in a place and face a threat I don’t understand. On the off chance they need to save themselves, they propose to send out a rocket. In causal terms, this may save the race by changing the future or not. I really don’t know. So if this sounds like your kind of book (with lots of explanatory charts and diagrams thrown in) you will be in your element with The Clockwork Rocket. But if, like me, you have the scientific ability of an amoeba and the attention span of a gnat, walk quietly on the other side.

Wonderfully atmospheric "rockets" from Cody Tilson

The full artwork for for jacket from Cody Tilson is spectacular.

For a review of another book by Greg Egan, see Zendegi.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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