Blaugust #21: a clockwork universe

Really good sci-fi should take the universe, give it a twist of what-if, and use the result to examine our societies, issues and lives through that new distorted lens. There’s no denying the universe presented in Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket certainly does that.

After squeezing and prodding the old man all over with more hands than most people used in a day, Doctor Livia announced her diagnosis. “You’re suffering from a serious light deficiency. The crops here are virtually monochromatic; your body needs a broader spectrum of illumination.”

The universe that our alien protagonist, Yalda, inhabits certainly has an interesting set of what-ifs compared to our own:

  • What if e still equals mc2, but c is no longer a constant? What if the speed of light is related to its wavelength, so that differently coloured light travels at different speeds? What if this discrepancy allows for a crude form of time travel?
  • What if a particle gives off light when it creates energy, not as a way of losing it; so plants create their own food by emitting light at night?
  • What if the universe is exothermic, heading to a fiery cataclysm and not the slow heat death we can look forward to?
  • What if your entire species has evolved so that most are born with an opposite-sex co, a kind of combined twin and future sexual partner?
  • What if when your species reproduces, the mother is consumed by the process, producing (usually) four offspring through fission, leaving society with no mother figuress, many aging fathers, and a disproportionate number of young offspring?
  • What if women who haven’t reproduced become increasingly likely to give birth (and thus die) spontaneously, asexually and unwillingly?

As a student and a semi-rare co-less solo,  Yalda certainly has her plate full, and that’s before huge asteroids start streaking closer and closer to the planet, threatening a global catastrophe.  She’s at the forefront of physics research, and embroiled an underground feminist movement using an illegal drug to prevent spontaneous reproduction, and it’s through her many alien eyes that we explore physics and society.

Egan has created a whole new universe with its own laws of physics, and populated it with a society with their own traditions, problems and social injustices, born of their biology and unique physical constraints. He’s also taken the bold move of peppering the text with a number of graphs and diagrams, illustrating the physical concepts as the protagonists work to understand their universe. Now,  love a good graph, but I can imagine this being somewhat off-putting to the casual sci-fi reader. This is hard sci-fi in all senses of the phrase.

I read this book with the Different Skies sci-fi reading group, and it got mixed reviews from the other attendees; it’s strong focus on physics and the scientific process put several people off — it’s a lot harder sci-fi than we usually read. It’s also the first novel in a series, so some felt the somewhat cliffhanger ending was unsatisfying. But I loved it from start to finish; I’d definitely read more by Egan in future.

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