On Books: The Clockwork Rocket

One of the most neglected aspects of the science-fiction genre is the science. Most authors, particularly those raised on stories from Astounding Tales and similar publications, will employ death rays and rockets without technological explanation, or include aliens with detailing the planets that developed that particular biological form. Writers’ inventions often resemble the untamed spells and monsters of the fantasy genre.

Clockwork Rocket by Greg EganTaking place in a universe defined by the Riemannian metric (to grossly oversimplify: space and time happening within a smooth manifold so if something travels far enough from the observer it can sneak up from behind) rather than operating within the settings of Minkowski spacetime (to grossly oversimplify, again: space is a plane intersected by time at the observer’s location), Hugo Award winner Greg Egan’s latest trilogy, Orthogonal, does not conflate its science with magic. This distinction, however, comes with it’s own challenges.

The Clockwork Rocket, the first book of the Orthogonal trilogy, begins on a planet of sentient, shape shifting beings who consume light and reproduce by multiple fission. While at college studying light, Yalda witnesses a stunning display as a meteor lights up the sky. Unlike most of society, who can’t agree on the origin of these Hurtlers, Yalda’s background leads her to reach different conclusions regarding these occurrences than than those reached by the scientific community at large.

Contradicting the aforementioned trend, Egan explains the science of his universe. As the physical world is explored through classroom scenes and late night collegiate discussions, academic diagrams interrupt readers with models that demonstrate the principles the characters are learning.

In many cases the adrenaline rush from a well written chase scene suspends disbelief. Egan’s focus on hard science, while refreshing and more stimulating than a dry textbook, outweighs any of the social problems faced by Yalda and her circle. The effect is similar to Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott: a wonderful mental challenge, gilded by a cursory and unsatisfying look at gender politics.

That said, Egan, like Abbott, would make a wonderful teacher, and The Clockwork Rocket is the perfect read for any physics enthusiast who wants their mind stretched and their view of the universe expanded.

The Clockwork Rocket (Orthogonal)
Greg Egan
Nightshade Books (June 2011)

Merriam Jones, writer of Cards & Stars, regularly reviews random items of interest for Isotropic Fiction.

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