The Clockwork Rocket
by Greg Egan
Cover Artist: Cody Tilson
Review by Benjamin Wald
Night Shade Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597802277
Date: 21 June 2011 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Greg Egan lives up to his reputation of writing the hardest of hard SF with his newest novel, The Clockwork Rocket. However, he also displays his less often remarked upon talents for writing engaging characters, fascinating and meticulously thought out alien biologies and societies, and trenchant social commentary. This novel has a lot to offer, both to those interested in hard SF world building and to those seeking more traditional literary pleasures.
The novel is set in an alternate universe, where the laws of physics are fundamentally different. In this universe, the different wavelengths of light travel at different speeds, with red light the slowest and violet the fastest, and the generation of light actually creates energy, among other differences. All of these differences flow from a single fundamental alteration to the laws of physics that Egan has meticulously worked out the consequences of. As an intellectual achievement, it is stunningly impressive.
Large sections of the novel are given over to characters within the novel working out how the physics of their cosmos operates, explaining it to the reader along the way. To call these sections infodumps seems to miss the point; the exploration of the alternate universe he has postulated is clearly one of Egan's main goals, so it is in no way superfluous. Still, those who are expecting a traditional reading experience are apt to be surprised; how many books have you read lately with dozens of physics diagrams scattered throughout? Those who like this kind of thing will love this book; no one does it better than Egan.
However, this is far from the only pleasure the novel offers. Egan has created one of the most fascinating alien biologies I have ever read. The women of the species reproduce by physically splitting into four, killing the mother in the process. The children are then raised by the father, or sterile males. As one might expect, the fact that childbirth is invariably fatal creates some unique societal pressures. Egan explores these issues in an insightful way, shedding a new light on the disconnect between biology and people's own desires and plans for their lives.
The plot of the novel follows Yalda. Yalda is singleton, so-called because her mother had only three children, leaving her physically larger and without a male "co", who are both brothers and something like husbands. Being a singleton makes Yalda a target of discrimination and intolerance to some, but she struggles to overcome these biases in order to become a scientist. Along the way, she discovers a terrible danger to her entire world. In order to avert the coming catastrophe, the inhabitants of Yalda's world must construct the eponymous clockwork rocket and launch it on a generations long voyage. Despite the vast differences between Yalda's world and our own, Egan makes her challenges and successes real and relevant to us.
The Clockwork Rocket is, in some ways, a strange mix of physics lecture and traditional novel. For those who will enjoy the physics lecture as much as the novel, this book is a must read. However, even for those who will skim through the more physics heavy sections (as I admit I did at times) this novel has a lot to offer. Egan's writing is surprisingly poetic and very effective, his characters are appealingly human even at their most alien, and he creates an alien society that is remarkably self-consistent while still evoking parallels with our own. While Greg Egan's particular brand of hard SF may not be for everyone, there is no denying his immense talent.