Saturday, 20 October 2012

Rocket to unreadability

Greg Egan is a pretty singular writer. Not content with imagining the outlines of his baroque science fiction worlds, he often delves deep into the details of the physics that underlie them. Sometimes this works out, but usually it winds up for me with a novel that I skip sections of. Surprisingly, even those novels where I've skipped the odd bit sometimes work out pretty well - Schild's Ladder and Quarantine, for instance, are both excellent in spite of skim-reading. They succeed, largely, because Egan balances his interest in micromanaging physics with ideas, plots and characters that are up the job of supporting this. Unfortunately, The Clockwork Rocket is not one of these novels.

To be fair, Egan does imbue this novel with some pretty interesting physics - a universe in which it's possible to move in space while staying stationary in time - and he does an impressive job of following through on the implications of this. But he bolts all of this onto a plot that's simply far too flimsy to make up for his patience-stretching digressions into alternative physics. On paper, if you'll pardon the expression, it should work, since he follows his physics through to the implications it has for the biology of his aliens. But his aliens, despite their physical differences and outlandishly tragic lifecycle, are disappointingly human in almost every other respect. And boring humans at that too. Sure, they're enmeshed in both a cultural revolution and a scientific one, but somehow this fails to translate to anything engaging. And, most disappointingly, this appears to be just the first book in a planned trilogy - sequels are not part of Egan's main sequence, so building on a failed novel seems particularly ill-judged.

What's also infuriating is that Egan's last novel, Zendegi, was such a triumph. Set in a near-future Iran with both a strong human story and great science fiction ideas, I thought it might see him beginning to attract a - long-overdue - wider audience. But The Clockwork Rocket is liable to set back his cause - subtitled ORTHOGONAL Book 1, it seems likely to, at best, set his popularity on a path orthogonal to that following Zendegi.

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