Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Clockwork Rocket - Greg Egan

Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket is an incredibly imaginative read. It posits a universe with physics different from our own, and then explores the consequences of those differences, across biology, sociology, mathematics, astronomy and, yes, physics. It’s a revelatory piece of fiction, and an exceptional work of imagination. On the other hand, parts of it feel more like the reader is in a classroom than a novel.

The narrative centres around Yalda; it follows her life from childhood, as one of several daughters in a farm, through her life as an academic, and beyond. But Yalda lives in an environment very different from our own. The most obvious differences are the physical – Yalda’s species are shape shifters, able to generate limbs within themselves, to move their body mass around to perform tasks. Egan manages to make this seem commonplace within the narrative – causing the extraordinary to seem ordinary. By the close of the text, the reader is likely accustomed to addition and subtraction of limbs. But there’s a biological and social exploration here as well – the species reproduces by fission, and as such, each daughter is eliminated in her own act of procreation. Egan uses this as a rather novel way to talk about gender roles in society. Yalda is almost an archetypal strong female protagonist – if not revolutionary, she’s certainly determined, and unlikely to bend under social pressures. There’s some wonderful discussions around contraception and childcare in a universe where every family is a single parent – and layers of subtext around Yalda and her circle, as the women of the species begin to take up roles in society that demand longevity.

So there’s an interesting universe here. My only issue is that the fundamental physics change that the author has made is what underlies that entire universe. Which is excellent – but the infodumps required to bring the reader up to speed are rather intensive. They’re masked in the narrative as part of the process of scientific discovery for the characters – and are, in that sense, entirely narratively appropriate. However, there are quite a lot of diagrams in the text, and many of them have some degree of geometry or velocity calculations in them. What they have to say is legitimately interesting, it’s just a shame that it wasn’t possible to make them a little more digestible, from the point of view of the reader.

The characters are, largely, backgrops against which our protagonist operates. There’s a couple of antagonists, though their threats never feel entirely serious. And there are a great deal more friends and acquaintances of the protagonist, who feel a tad more real; it’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with them.  Yalda, on the other hand, is a well realised character – with her own thoughts, feelings and goals. Some of these goals may feel a bit alien, but most are recognisable enough to inspire empathy in the reader. At any rate, the protagonist feels like a person. A slightly odd person, operating in a world entirely different from our own, but still a character that the reader can make themselves at home with.

From a plot point of view, we’re left following Yalda as she investigates the ‘Hurtlers’, a possibly cataclysmic series of falling stars in her universe. At the same time we follow Yalda’s evolution as an individual, and the shifting social structure in which she is to be found. There’s a lot going on here. Much of it, especially the social aspect and the struggle with the Hurtlers, is quite compelling – aand I found myself quite keen to find out what happened next.

Really, it’s all very clever stuff, and I’m interested to see where Egan takes the next book in the series. It’s a shame that a lot of it is wrapped in some rather esoteric scientific dialogue, but I’m genuinely impressed by the depth and breadth of imagination on display, as well.   Is it worth reading? If you have a reasonable tolerance for theoretical or imaginary physics, absolutely.  If you want to approach a genuinely different universe, expertly portrayed, then yes. It’s a decent read, either way – just be aware what you’re getting into.

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