The Clockwork Rocket: Orthogonal Book One Hardcover – Jul 1 2011
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Top Customer Reviews
This book is definitely worth the work. He has obviously put a great deal of effort into building this alternate universe and it's well worth it.
In fact, they cook up a scheme where they go on a near-lightspeed round trip so they can get more time to cook up the solution.
Since this is only book one, the "intense drama" doesn't work - you have to wait until several generations and the next book.
I intend to read it again, but only to figure out the physics in more detail. Since I do have a degree in the subject, I think I can get it, but it rather stood in the way of plot and character development for me, so I skipped all but the basics needed to follow the story until a later reading.
I didn't find this to be one of Egan's best books (though his others are so outstanding that it would be a challenge), but give the author full marks for trying something a bit more scientific than most science fiction.
The Kindle addition of this book is very inexpensive. I highly recommend this for any fan of sci-fi.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Set in another universe where light does not travel at a constant speed but instead has a velocity that depends on its wavelength, Clockwork Rocket recounts the personal life journey of an inhabitant in this fictional universe. Born into a simple but loving rural family, Yalda eventually has an opportunity to go to school (not something that everyone gets to do in her society). The reader shares Yalda's experiences as she asks deeper and deeper questions about her world and how it all fits together. Along the way she becomes one of the eminent scholars of her generation. Egan skillfully describes some of the subtleties of scientific discovery and manages to impart a sense of wonder whenever Yalda finds and fits a new piece of the puzzle that is her universe.
The parallels between Yalda's society and western society are plentiful enough that we don't feel lost. (There's even an ancient philosopher, Meconio, to serve the role that our own ancient Aristotle serves in our world.) However enough differences exist to allow Egan some avenues for thoughtful social commentary. What makes this book unique is that it manages to accomplish the same thing with physical laws to provide a kind of "physical commentary"!
Egan has a gift for distilling mathematical ideas down to their essence and that gift shines brightly in this book. He manages to cover many of the essential parts of how our world works and (I think) does it better than any physics text book I've read. He then goes further by using these physical laws, true in our world and Yalda's, to build from them a physics that is not ours. The resulting physical system is simpler than "real" physics allowing the reader to experience the rushing sensation of going from high school to advanced graduate level physics in the space of only some 300 pages. It's like a "skydive for the intellect" and is immensely satisfying and thrilling. By the end of the story we haven't just been told a story but we've been guided through a new system of physics that, for all its weirdness, is simple and seemingly consistent!
If you've ever wanted to know what it might be like to discover something like Einstein's Theory of Relativity yourself then you'll definitely enjoy this book. If you're familiar with the history of science in our world then you'll appreciate when similar issues unfold in Yalda's. If you're just wondering what a universe with a different set of physical laws might look like then this book is for you.
And if this isn't enough for you there's also a host of interesting characters along the way; a world threatened by extinction; a massive emergency space travel effort to save the world; sabotage; intrigue; and a trip into the fourth dimension. Oh yeah, and there really is a clockwork rocket!
If all you are looking for is some easy prose that you can skim through and then forget in a couple of weeks then this book is not for you. (Might I suggest something in the "fantasy" genre?) "Clockwork Rocket" is a book to read, ponder, and reread. You will never forget it. You will use its lessons every time you look around our own world and wonder "Why do things happen *this* way?"
In some respects it was a satisfying novel. There was a sense of wonder in seeing how Yalda's universe behaved with its altered laws and the engineering difficulties this posed. As a novel, though, it wasn't entirely satisfying. The secondary theme involving Holin and the bizarre physiology of the alien protagonists seemed less than necessary and didn't really ring any emotional bells for me. Also, the novel often felt like an appendix to a physics thesis on the physics of an alternative universe. Sort of like a narrated guide through the effects of the physics of this world rather than a compelling novel in its own right.
Having said that, I recommend it (the kindle price is a bargain) if only because there really isn't anything like it in SF at present. Just be prepared (if your physics and math background isn't up to par) to spend quite a bit of time staring at the supplemental material to figure out what is going on in the novel.
I read enough of the latter to get the gist of the premise underlying this universe, and launched straight into the story. But my curiosity is whetted enough to return to the physics at a later stage.
Some of the physics left me reeling, but a more superficial understanding does not detract from enjoyment of the story, which is large enough in scope, and exotic enough in execution, to satisfy any lover of physics based-space opera. Perhaps at times the mathematical digressions (Egan is transparently passionate about physics!) overwhelmed the narrative, but not enough to deduct a star from the rating.
And I admit that I shed a tear at the ending.
I have read almost all of Mr. Egan's work from the first novels like Permutation City and Quarantine to his prodigious short fiction output with only the two notable exceptions of his near future novels (Teranesia and Zendegi) which are of less interest for me and I never failed to be blown away by his ability to put the most abstract and farthest reaching concepts of modern science in a story that entertains and moves.
So when I read about his planned new series that takes place in a "Riemannian universe", one where the metric - the math concept that encodes the basic physics of the universe - is positive definite and symmetric in space and time as opposed to the indefinite antisymmetric metric in the Einsteinian universe we seemingly inhabit, I was truly intrigued and indeed The Clockwork Rocket was what I expected and more and so far it is my all around top novel of the year for the combination of sense of wonder, great world building, characters and general "human interest" - the shape-shifting, weird biology aliens of The Clockwork Rocket are both strange and familiar and the story of the main character Yalda is as emotional as any I've read this year...
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "The Clockwork Rocket" is the perfect sf novel and a clear example why sf is still my favorite genre; on the one hand there is sense of wonder given by the speculative but informed exploration of an universe with definite though different laws of physics than ours, on the other hand the book flows on the page and it has in Yalda one of the best main characters in recent memories, while the supporting cast is well drawn and distinctive.
The protagonists of the story are strange: the metric of the universe requires complex molecules to be really complex so to speak, so all life is shapeshifting; our heroes are six limbed shapeshifters, symmetric in 3D in their "normal" form - so they have eyes both back and front for example - that emit light, sleep in beds dug in the ground to cool down - though of course the well off in cities have special cooled beds.
They reproduce by the mother being divided into four - two twin pairs, each usually forming a new reproducing couple, though there are the occasional solos like Yalda and the social misfits mostly female, that run away from their twin, not to speak of the usual hardships of life that prevent exponential overpopulation from the generational doubling above, while the longer lived men are conditioned to take care of the children...
A harsh universe with unstable matter, but also a culture of cities, science, technology, society, books, philosophers, scientists... The people in this universe are "not us" and in some ways are very strange due to their biology - "being able to fly is like being able to know your mother" is one of the simple proverbs that appear in the book - but they are also "us" in the ways that matter. So The Clockwork Rocket is a pitch perfect example of how to imagine aliens that are not "costume aliens" ie pseudo-humans with one human characteristic expanded to usually grotesque proportions a la Star Trek species, but that are similar enough that we understand and care about them...
The book follows the "solo" Yalda - ie she "ate" her twin in the womb as the other "normal" children tease her - from a farmer family but who is lucky enough to have a father who appreciates learning and who has promised Yalda's mother to school any of the offspring that shows inclination. So despite being almost twice as big as the normal female - and females are considerably bigger than males here for obvious biological reasons - and not expected to reproduce - ie be quartered in four - in the usual age range due to the lack of a twin mate, so being potentially of huge help on the family farm, Yalda gets to go to school and later is admitted to the university in one of the cities that form the civilization of the planet.
Soon she starts rewriting the physics books by some ingenious experiments, while becoming involved with a group of "liberated" professional females who had learned how to extend their lives and avoid the harsh fate nature destined for them, since even if they do not mate, there is "spontaneous" reproduction and the chances of such increase drastically with age, while the special drug that prevents it, needs to be taken in larger and larger doses...
And then of course comes the main story we read about in the blurb with the orthogonal stars, the threat to Yalda's civilization and the crazy solution she and some of her friends come up with...
So there is discovery, drama, even the stirrings of social change, while in the second part of the book the pace accelerates and the book becomes a true sf classic of people learning to cope with new, challenging and unforeseen circumstances, while Yalda's saga continues towards its clear conclusion. The novel moved me deeply too and I *really* want the second installment to see where the story goes next since there is ample scope for surprises and the author surely did not show his full hand about his exploration of this wonderfully imagined universe.
Overall, The Clockwork Rocket (A++) is the one sf novel I strongly recommend to read if you want to understand why the genre has fascinated so many people for so long. Even if you are confused at the beginning by the seemingly familiar but actually strange people of the book, keep reading since things will start making sense soon and the story is captivating from the first page till the superb but emotional last paragraph...
"When Yalda was almost three years old, she was entrusted with the task of bearing her grandfather into the forest to convalesce.
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."
Note: this review has first appeared on Fantasy Book Critic and all links and references are found there
The Clockwork Rocket's cover blurb is a perfect way to introduce the book, so I'm going to go ahead and quote part of it here:
"In Yalda's universe, light has no universal speed and its creation generates energy.
In Yalda's universe, plants make food by emitting their own light into the night sky.
As a child, Yalda witnesses one of a series of strange meteors, the Hurtlers, that is entering the planetary system at an immense, unprecedented speed. It becomes apparent that her world is in imminent danger--and that the task of dealing with the Hurtlers will require knowledge and technology far beyond anything her civilization has yet achieved."
So yes, Yalda's the focus, the universe is the focus, and the planet she lives on (and the fact that it's in danger) is the focus too.
Yalda is The Clockwork Rocket's fascinating protagonist. When we first meet her, she's a young girl living and working on her family's farm, but it quickly becomes apparent that she's smarter than average, so she ends up going to school, later to a university, and eventually will become a respected physicist involved in the attempt to save her world from the Hurtlers.
Yalda's species is one of the most alien ones I've encountered in SF. They are able to reshape their bodies, e.g. by extruding extra limbs as needed. This also allows them to "write" on their skin by forming symbol-shaped ridges. They have two sets of eyes, front and back. But most fascinating is the way they reproduce: the female effectively divides into four children (usually two male-female pairs of "co's") and dies in the process, leaving the male to raise the children.
Greg Egan does great things, extrapolating an entire society from this starting point. The idea of "reproductive freedom" takes on a whole new meaning when the female is guaranteed to die when giving birth. Some females refuse this fate and run away, but even then there's a chance that they might spontaneously conceive, so there's also a black market for an illegal contraceptive drug and a network of independent women to support it. This obviously threatens to move the planet towards something like gender equality, so Yalda's world, which technologically seems to be at roughly the same level as ours in the first half of the 20th century, is also going through some of that period's political and societal changes.
And then there's the universe. Greg Egan takes his very alien aliens and then places them in a universe that's ruled by different physical laws than ours. The fact that light doesn't have a universal speed is just one of them. He explains, at great length and with a multitude of accompanying diagrams, exactly how different it is, what those differences mean, and how they apply to the story. This often happens in the form of pages-long lecture-dialogues between two scientists. There is a lot of science in this novel--so much that it may turn off some readers. Random example from p. 94:
"The geometry gives us that, easily," Yalda replied. "For a simple wave, the sum of the squares of the frequencies in all four dimensions equals a constant. But we also know that the wave's second rate of change in each direction will be the original wave multiplied by a negative factor proportional to the frequency squared."
Another one, from p. 304:
"The second mystery," Yalda continued, "is the structure of particles of gas. There are plenty of symmetrical polyhedrons where putting a luxagen at every vertex gives you a mechanically stable configuration--which seems to make them good candidates for the little balls of matter of which we expect a gas to be comprised. But those polyhedrons share the problem solids have: the luxagens rolling in their energy valleys will always have some low frequency components to their motion, so they ought to give off light and blow the whole structure apart."
Now, a book reviewer who complains about science in a Greg Egan novel is just about as silly as a music reviewer who complains that a Metallica album has too many loud guitars in it. It's basically par for the course. However, it's also fair to warn people who haven't read much Greg Egan yet that they'll encounter quite a lot of paragraphs like the ones above. Pages full of them, actually.
So, your reading experience with The Clockwork Rocket is going to be very different depending on how hard you like your science fiction and how much you appreciate an author who doesn't just wave his hands and shout "Hocus Pocus FTL Drive!" Greg Egan really integrates his science into his story, to the point where the novel wouldn't make sense without it. When he shows Yalda discovering that universe's equivalent of the Theory of Relativity, it's both scientifically impressive and highly relevant to the story. But at the same time, I'm a humble liberal arts major who already knows that he'll have trouble helping his children with their high school math homework, and for people like me, some of the endless scientific explanations in this book are frankly tough sledding.
If you want more information about the background of The Clockwork Rocket's universe, Greg Egan helpfully provides it on his website, both in a version for people with only high school trigonometry, algebra and calculus and one for people who have undergraduate level physics and mathematics under their belt. If your eyes glaze over reading the basic version, your experience reading this novel may be similar to mine: I truly admire this novel, but I can't honestly say that I enjoyed every single page of it.
Nevertheless, I'm still eager to read the rest of the Orthogonal trilogy, because Greg Egan achieves something very few SF novels manage: he creates some real, old-fashioned sensawunda. Just the concept of the clockwork generation starship would be enough to keep me coming back for more, not to mention the curiosity about what will happen when the descendants of Yalda's crew--no doubt evolved towards vastly different social norms--return to their home planet. And as alien as the characters are, Greg Egan manages to make you empathize with them and sometimes even forget they're not human, which is quite an achievement.
The Clockwork Rocket is probably the hardest hard science fiction novel I've ever read, but it also has a surprising amount of heart. For Greg Egan fans, and fans of hard SF in general, the Orthogonal trilogy will be a real treat. For people who come to SF more for the fiction than the science, it may be a more challenging read--but ultimately a rewarding one. Bring on book two.