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REVIEW: The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan


Title: The Clockwork Rocket
Author: Greg Egan
Pub Date: June 21, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An extremely detailed exercise in scientific world-building, though skimpy on character engagement.

Before I get into reviewing Greg Egan’s new book The Clockwork Rocket, I feel I must offer a disclaimer: I am neither a physicist nor a mathematician. The fact that I need to preface a discussion of the book with such a disclaimer should already tell you a lot about it. The Clockwork Rocket is hard science fiction, an impressive exercise in rationalist world-building that posits a universe whose physics differs significantly from our own. And while the book wins my applause for its science and world-building, I’m afraid the characters left a little to be desired.

The Clockwork Rocket follows the character of Yalda, a non-human female who lives on a planet quite unlike the Earth we know. She comes from a rural farming backwater, where few people are literate (despite the fact that her species can naturally manipulate their bodies’ shape and structure with enough precision to form symbols on their skin).

From the start of the book, Yalda is set apart from her neighbors. Unlike most of her siblings and cousins, she is introduced as a child who is discriminated against due to her lack of a predetermined mate and her large size. Using a child perspective character to gradually introduce the reader to some pretty complicated world-building is an old trick, but Egan pulls it off reasonably well. As Yalda learns about the physics of her world, we learn alongside her. When she becomes a teacher, we learn along with her students. The book is structured such that each chapter represents a particular event in her life, with jumps of indeterminate time between them – sometimes spanning days, other times entire years. We get to follow Yalda as she leaves the family farm, and begins to get a proper university education…still subject to her society’s discrimination and social expectation that females should be content to die giving birth to their children.

By the end of the first several pages, we are absolutely certain that we are not in Kansas anymore. If the structure introduces a problem, it is that there is a colossal amount of world-building to communicate. How much world-building would that be? Well, over on his web site Egan has posted over 80,000 words (that is not a typo) of notes on the physics and math alone. They are a thing of beauty. He’s even got cool tutorial videos! However, the strategy employed and the density of the world-building both lead the first half of the book to consist of little other than one scientist explaining something to another scientist (with copious diagrams and some explanation of formula). While the explanations are intellectually interesting, the lack of emotional tension and density of the scientific material may be off-putting to some readers.

From a plotting standpoint, two basic tensions are introduced. First, Yalda’s species has an interesting reproductive cycle. Females die giving birth, and if they delay reproduction for too long they risk involuntary parthenogenesis. This creates an interesting dynamic between the genders of her species, and leads to some thematic tension. Because she lacks a mate, Yalda is under particular pressure by the establishment of her society. As an independent thinker who aggressively seeks education and rejects the standard female role in her society, she challenges that establishment, and of course that establishment pushes back. It was refreshing to see that throughout the book, Yalda at no point needs to be rescued by a man. I can respect a hard SF story that puts a female scientist in jeopardy and doesn’t have her rely on an alpha male to save her.

The second tension is an impending apocalypse caused by two universes (with different rules of physics) colliding. As they collide, Yalda’s world is in danger of being destroyed. As a theoretical physicist and the discoverer of her universe’s flavor of relativity, Yalda is at the heart of her species’ efforts to save themselves. Their solution – to build a rocket ship that can be taken out of time, filled with top scientists, and then re-inserted into their timeline when the scientists’ descendents have figured out a solution – is ingenious. It is really cool that Egan’s alternative rules of physics make this plausible.

World-building vs Emotional Engagement in The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

The Clockwork Rocket: Intensity of Reading Experience

One would think that both the societal pressure and the risk of apocalypse would lend Yalda’s story a degree of emotional tension, but unfortunately whatever tension is produced gets subsumed by the sheer volume of diagrams and scientific explanations. The physics are fascinating – but I found that I didn’t quite care about the character as much as I would have liked to. This is especially a problem for the first half of the book, where the reader’s learning curve is very high. Once we’re grounded in the physics, the character and her problems become more engaging. But two hundred pages of world-building is a lot to plow through before we can really start investing in our perspective character. The Clockwork Rocket is not unique in this issue: much hard SF shares this problem (Kim Stanley Robinson’s classic Red Mars comes to mind). While readers used to hard SF who enjoy the intellectual challenge may enjoy this, it is not for everyone.

Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket is particularly interesting when compared to Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Like Egan, Yu posits a universe with rules of physics entirely different from our own. But Yu’s book focuses on the internal and emotional experience of his everyman character. It is through his character that we understand Yu’s world-building. Egan’s strategy is to focus on the world-building first, and then have the character follow. These two different approaches yield very different reading experiences.

Ultimately, I found The Clockwork Rocket reasonably satisfying. But that satisfaction was very cerebral: the book resonated intellectually with me in the same way that a particularly neat thought experiment might. Fans of hard SF will love the complexity, rigor, and comprehensiveness of Egan’s world building. However, now that Egan’s universe is introduced and his characters are left in a fairly interesting situation, I hope the next book focuses more on the characters and less on the physics. The physics are great – but alone they can’t really carry the story.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Shuko #

    Hi

    As much as I liked Yu’s book, your comparison here seems rather odd to me. Yu’s world-building is, let’s say, random or “literary”, meaning that it won’t withstand a logical scientific scrutiny (because that’s not what it is designed to do). The Clockwork Rocket world is utterly consistent with its own set of rules, and it is so scientifically.

    Maybe the next installments in the Orthogonal trilogy are going to be less hard on the physics, but I won’t bet on it.

    SK

    August 18, 2011
    • @SK: Thanks for chiming in! I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you on Yu’s world-building. Both Egan and Yu develop and apply consistent, complex world-building, but they do it in very different ways.

      Yu posits a world where semantics and ontology are the roots of a consensual universe. It may come across as “random”, but in reality that’s just the fuzziness inherent in ontology. If there were a mathematical explanation, it would probably rely very heavily on quantum states, multidimensional algebra, and the characterization and emotional state of Schrodinger’s kitty.

      My concern is a question of how each author communicates that world-building. With his scientist heroine, Egan devotes more page-time to the foundational physics of Orthogonal relativity than to Yalda’s experiences. Yu’s book instead focuses almost exclusively on the protagonists’ experiences. Both are equally valid choices, but they result in entirely different reading experiences.

      As someone who plays with computational linguistics for a living, I loved the science of Yu’s universe and his “storyspace” concepts. It would have been nice to dive into the science even further, but doing so would have drawn attention away from Yu’s hero. And ultimately, to enjoy the novel it wasn’t necessary.

      Much as I loved the science behind the Clockwork Rocket, I think it might have been benefited from more focus on the characters. I don’t think it needs to be an “either-or” proposition, and with his scientist heroine Egan would still have enjoyed plenty of opportunity to pack in tasty nuggets of conjectural physics. Much as I love the math, there are times when it might be “too much of a good thing.” Egan has put his characters into an interesting situation. Their reactions to that situation will hopefully be as interesting (if not more) than the physics of their world.

      August 22, 2011

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