Saturday, April 21, 2012

100 Books #32 - Greg Egan's THE CLOCKWORK ROCKET

Let me just start by saying that The Clockwork Rocket is the most challenging, brain-hurtingly weird book I've read since Christopher Priest's Inverted World.

But it's even better.

As a story of an alien scientist making discoveries (I kept thinking of Neal Stephenson's Anathem), and, even more intriguingly, as a deep exploration of the tension between the individual self's aspiration and desires versus the body's biological compulsion to reproduce the organism, The Clockwork Rocket is nonpareil.

But these aren't even the point of the book, which is really a giant thought experiment in (really good) fictional form. For Yalda, the fascinating protagonist of The Clockwork Rocket, lives in a universe in which the speed of light is not a constant; in layman's terms, different colors/wavelengths travel at different speeds (let that soak in for a moment, even if you don't even remember high school physics. Think of all of the things that light does: the visible world, chemical reactions, even signalling within our own bodies. Except nothing works the way we're used to. Think how weird that would be) and the laws of thermodynamics and other things that depend on that constant (like, say, relativity) are thus also different. And as a scientist at the peak of her career, she is busy trying to figure all this stuff out (she's sort of the Isaac Newton/Albert Einstein of her world), and bringing us along for the ride.

But the stars and chemistry and all of the vast cosmic principles associated with them aren't the only things that are weird in this universe: Yalda also has to contend with the biology of her species, and it's a bitch. While members of her species can extrude new limbs at will, can shift visual awareness to another pair of "rear eyes," can fundamentally alter the very morphology of their bodies even to the point of developing a system of writing that involves raising symbols on their skin that are both visible and tactile (to preserve what is written, they cover these raised bits with dye and then print the resulting images onto paper), they are still bound by an almost unchangeable fact of their reproductive cycle: males are sterile; only females can reproduce, which, usually but not always after being properly stimulated by a male, results in the creation of (usually) four children, two male and two female, and of the mother there is nothing left; she divides like a somatic cell in mitosis, disappearing in the creation of its daughter cells*. A certain amount of planning for this can be done in an established couple (usually an identical brother and sister, who each bear a corresponding masculine/feminine name, like Aurelio and Aurelia), but there are always exceptions...

Yalda is one of these: she has no "co"; no identical brother grew up with her as her intended; village wags think she ate him at birth because she is unusually big and strong. And so she faces even greater pressures: she is bright and curious and her father promised her mother that if any of their children showed intellectual promise he would see he or she got to go to school, but her immense strength and size is a great asset in the farming community in which she was born. Wouldn't it be best for everyone if she just stayed and served as a big strong farmhand? What's the point of educating a woman when all she has gained and learned is consigned to oblivion when she has her children?

Fortunately, her father is a keeper of promises, and Yalda becomes a brilliant scientist and earns a certain degree of respect -- as much as a "Solo" woman can, anyway. She meets others like her who have developed a drug that helps to prevent or delay reproduction, which sometimes happens spontaneously if a woman lives in a dense population center, or just gets old! The drug is illegal; women are supposed to accept their fate and give up their lives when their time comes; it's selfish in the extreme to want to stay alive. Which in some ways makes this the scariest book I've read since The Handmaid's Tale!

Mind you, this is just the stuff that I, a liberal arts educated generalist, found most fascinating in the book, but as I said before, the focus is really on the physics. Lots of readers have gotten hung up on this and complained about it, but I found this material lucid and extremely interesting, presented so well and naturally as Yalda is educated and starts experimenting that I found myself remarking on Twitter that I felt like I understood Egan's invented physics better than that of our real world**. And even when I got lost, as did happen more than once as I am no physicist, there was plenty of other stuff going on to keep me interested and let me just sort of gloss over stuff I just didn't get. Smarter people than me will probably have a whole different experience of reading this book, but I think the fact that both they and I can enjoy the hell out of this book is probably a sign of narrative talent and extraordinary clarity on Egan's part.

Even now, though, I haven't touched on what is really going on in this book. More shades, perhaps, of Anathem: there is contact with another universe, with different physics, and Yalda's universe may not survive this contact! Enter the titular rocket, which is Yalda's civilization's last, best hope. Its mission is simply to fly out and come back, but the peculiar physics of this universe means that the inhabitants of the rocket will exist as though it were a generational ship, with all the time they need to invent their way out of their situation -- while at home on the ground, only four years will pass.

And then there's the rocket itself, which I won't spoil for you except in as to say it is glorious! I found myself really, really wanting to be part of its crew.

But then, you know, what sci-fi fan wouldn't?

*Horrifyingly, as we discover with Yalda, sometimes this just happens, especially if a female is older and lives in a densely populated area.

**In this area, there is fantastic help to be had in the form of these tutorial videos Egan put together. Between these and the book itself, man, I wish Egan would write a physics textbook, because I think I'd finally get it all if he was doing the explaining. Really!


  1. Great review, Kate! Looks like the method of reproduction is magnified and projected large upon their cosmos? It wouldn't be the first time that had happened.

    Thanks for all your excellent reviews; time to expand my reading list again!

  2. Glad to be of service, ToB. I'm enjoying sharing these books, even when they're not that good, but this one is exceptional.

  3. Got this for my kindle after reading the first couple paragraphs of this. :)

  4. Oh boy, James! You're going to love it, but I take no responsibility for the hurty brain you're going to experience XD


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