For some reason, I only ever end up reviewing the books by Greg Egan that I don’t like. This review, of The Clockwork Rocket, first appeared in BullSpec 7, Spring 2012:
Some years ago, I began a review with the punning but not entirely facetious question: how hard is sf? What followed was concerned mostly with the nature of hard sf, but the question applies equally to the readability of the sub-genre. It seems, sometimes, that there are writers who forget that ‘sf’ contains the word fiction, or at least who believe that the fiction is there only to qualify the science: if they throw in some fictional science they don’t need to bother with the other qualities of fiction.
A case in point is Greg Egan’s latest novel. The first thing to be said about this book is that there is no point of contact with our world at all: the biology is different, the geology is different, the social structure is different; even the laws of physics are different. Most of us, who are experienced science fiction readers, would have no difficulty taking such differences on board (and this is not a book you would ever consider putting in front of someone who did not read the genre), but why should we? If nothing in the book relates to us, what are we expected to get out of it at the end? A whole series of thought experiments with no objective.
It is easy to imagine the process: Egan might begin by asking himself what it would be like to live in a world where the different colours of light travel at different speeds. We can recognise this as his starting point, since the novel is crowded with graphs and diagrams to illustrate precisely this situation. Indeed, large parts of the novel read like a textbook in alternative physics, the author regularly stopping the story dead in its tracks to jab a finger at the recalcitrant reader and insist: you have to understand this point. This would matter less if the story was more compelling, unfortunately the more I read, the less I believed.
Let us take the example of Yalda, our heroine. She is a member of a race that has no clear or fixed shape; she is able to extend or retract new limbs at will, raise or lower her centre of gravity. Yet this malleability of form does not extend to sexual characteristics; she is female. The females of this species give birth by splitting into four, generally two males and two females who will then be raised by the father until they are old enough to pair off in their own right. So birth literally equals death, a fact that has a profound effect upon the social structure of this world; at least, it does whenever Egan remembers it. The trouble is, although Egan stacks the decks comprehensively against women (not only do they die in childbirth, but they actually seem to have little or no control over when this happens), he still gives us a number of strong women, including the heroine, who seem able to achieve much in the face of little of no sexual discrimination. I just don’t believe that a society in which the biology so noticeably conspires against women would, in sociological terms, be edging towards the sort of anti-discriminatory structure that we still can’t quite take for granted.
But then, there are lots of other things, large and small, that I don’t quite believe. These people write by manipulating their own form so that characters appear upon their body. They have developed a form of paper and a form of ink that allows them to take one or two impressions from a person’s chest, but they seem to have developed no way of making multiple copies or publishing such writings widely. Yet this is a people that will, during the course of the book, invent a rocketship and launch it on a voyage intended to last generations. Though to be honest, I’m surprised they ever got this far, since the rocket (actually a mountain detached wholesale from the planet) is powered by two naturally occurring and abundant minerals that explode whenever they are brought together. It seems that the whole planet might simply blow up at any moment (as Egan acknowledges, since the biggest worry when the rocket takes off is that it will cause a chain reaction that destroys the world). This is not analogous to atomic power on Earth, since such an explosion would not need advanced scientific manipulation or even any human intervention.
Indeed, the plot gets started when shards of light suddenly appear in the sky. This is different from the way light normally operates in this universe, and we realise it is from a universe orthogonal to Yalda’s. And the light blows up other planets, so if one of these shards were to hit the world it might easily destroy it. Now this is a relatively sophisticated society, but the science is still fairly rudimentary, they have never, for example, sent anyone off planet. But Yalda is a typical Egan genius who not only perceives the threat but devises the most baroque response. They will build a rocket, set out at near light speed, after a certain time they will turn it round and return to the planet. Time dilation will mean that very little time has passed on the planet, but the journey will be long enough that the travelers aboard the rocket will have had time to create an entirely new science to deal with the threat. Yeah, right.
There are moments, particularly during the creation of the rocket and in the early part of its voyage, when Egan builds up a head of steam and, balderdash though it might be, the story still grips you. But then, of course, he stops the story to give you another lecture on the science. It’s a bravura display of creating a whole imaginary science from nothing, but if you’re not caught up in the intellectual excitement of the thought experiments you do find yourself asking: why? And this is only the first volume in a series.