One thing must be noted about Greg Egan’s fiction in general, and this book in particular. He, and it, are uncompromising. In reading it the audience must be one of two things: able and willing to understand complex physics, or willing to accept that they do not understand those physics and carry on with the story regardless. If you are not in either of those two camps, The Clockwork Rocket is most definitely not for you and Egan makes no apology for that. This is a book that comes with diagrams. (For reference, I fall into the second camp. It’s a long time since I did any physics seriously.)
This is a story set in a universe different from ours in one very crucial aspect: the speed of light is not a constant. In many respects, this book (the first of a trilogy) represents the working out of the consequences inherent in that seemingly simple fact – to the point where a large chunk of the book is actually just that: a physics student exploring the ramifications of observed phenomena on the possibilities of time and space.However, were this novel merely an amusing exercise for the physics lover, I would not have persevered. Along with the physics, Egan has incorporated some rather profound discussion of gender and reproduction, all within a quite compelling story about saving the world.
Why does the world require saving? Egan takes the ancient fear that comets herald the end of the world and makes it true (…maybe). At the start of the story, the occasional streaking light is seen in the night sky; over time, with more appearing, these streaks come to be called Hurtlers. This increase in number, and in brightness, leads some people to wonder about exactly what is causing them, and whether it might lead to problems for the world in the future. The protagonist, Yalda, is the one to realise that yes, these Hurtlers may actually represent her world’s doom, and she and others start work on an audacious plan to attempt that doom’s subversion. The plot follows Yalda’s initial experience of education, her move to university, and on into theoretical physics and astronomical research, for roughly the first half of the book. The second half is concerned with Yalda and friends convincing people of the truth of the problem, and of their proposed solution: build a rocket, send it out, and have it return in a few years of world time. Because of the non-constant speed of light, if the rocket is accelerated to a sufficiently high speed many generations will pass on the rocket – and those generations will have the time to do the necessary research to avert disaster planet-side. (If it sounds like I’m spoiling a major plot point, occurring late as it does in the book, fear not: this is all mentioned in the book’s blurb. My guess is that it was put there to encourage readers to push on through the theoretical physics in the knowledge that honestly, there really is a plot here, too. Also, if you’re about to raise issues with the physics – don’t. I’m just telling you what Egan sets out in the book, and I do not have enough physics myself to be able to point out possible flaws in his logic.) Naturally, the course of research never does run smooth, so Yalda and friends experience problems – deliberate and accidental – as well as the frustrations familiar to any scientific pioneers. They do eventually get off the ground, and I think it’s fair to say that much of the most interesting plot occurs onboard the titular rocket.
Egan has not transplanted Earth to his new universe. The world of the story, and the people, are just different enough to be disquietingly alien. Plants emit light at night. People have variable morphologies: if an extra pair of hands is needed for a task, it can be extruded. And, most profoundly, children are formed directly from the mother’s body: she becomes essentially a cocoon, and then splits into four, to create new beings. Ideally, she produces two sets of male and female pairs. When each of these females in turn is ready, she and her co (male partner) meld and she likewise splits into four – and the children will then be raised by her co. Like me, perhaps one of your first reactions is to cry ‘incest’. However, there is no sexuality on this planet, so it’s quite a different situation; our ideas of sexual and familial separation are irrelevant. There are a lot of interesting repercussions of this form of procreation. For me, the most intriguing issue raised is the issue of gender. Children are born from one half of the pair, and that one is called the mother; this is similar to humanity, and perhaps warrants Egan’s use of the feminine pronoun. However, the co raises the children – generally also seen as primarily a mother’s job in humanity – and the suggestion that females could take on this role is seen as entirely unnatural. There is also little suggestion throughout the book that there is anything other than this reproductive role to distinguish between male and female; females do not seem to be subordinated in terms of schooling, for example, simply because they are female, although they may be subject to harsh penalties if they appear to be rejecting their biological destiny. This may be similar to some extremist views today about women being fit only to bear children, but here it’s not the only thing they are capable of doing but rather the genuinely last thing they ever will – and in some sense what they are intended, ultimately, to do. It doesn’t need to be explained, I imagine, that the existence of a drug that can stall their reproductive splitting (there needs to be a word like bifurcate – quartofurcate?) is contentious to the point of immorality or illegality (it’s a bit blurry which). Egan is setting some very provocative questions here about the nature of gender and reproduction and parenting (single parents are the norm!). This is not to say that his ideas and choices are always unproblematic; the very nature of reproduction was troubling, for me, although Egan makes it clear there is no pain involved. And all of this, all of this normal way of being, is off balance right from the start by the main character Yalda, because she is a single: when her mother split, only three children were created. She has no co, and is therefore alternately pitied and reviled. Partly as a consequence of this, she gets the opportunity for a more advanced education than might otherwise have been possible – a bit like having an independent income and a room of one’s own. As often happens, the slightly-outsider character allows for a more interesting perception on the society.
Overall, I really loved this novel. Yes, there were pages where I skimmed the intense physics discussions, because vector diagrams just don’t do it for me. But the character of Yalda, and a desire to find out exactly where all of this was heading, kept me reading – and will make me get the second book as soon as humanly possible.