The following will include spoilers for The Clockwork Rocket, which I discussed over here.
A universe where parts of the spectrum of light travel at different speeds. A race where mothers cannot exist. Vector diagrams. They’re overused, but I’ll use them anyway: Egan is nothing if not ambitious and audacious.
A warning: the same issues that pertained to Clockwork crop up here. It is most definitely not a book that will work for everyone. You have to fall within a fairly specific range of readers: either someone who really enjoys thinking about physics and won’t be weirded out by the bizarre physics Egan is working through here; OR someone who is willing to skim over the vector diagrams and other physics-lecture bits, and just enjoy the story. Personally, I’m the latter. And the only reason I was willing and able to push through the physics was because I trust Egan to give me a really worthwhile story between, or around, it. I kind of imagined that I was listening to a really, really interesting person who occasionally meandered into talking about stuff I didn’t get, but was bound to get back to the good stuff eventually. And I was right.
The point of the Orthogonal series is to explore two central ideas: how the universe might be different if the speed of light isn’t constant; and how society might be different if mothers didn’t exist – or rather, they cease to exist at the point of childbirth. The story revolves around these two issues, and does so in occasionally remarkable ways. The physics aspect is very much an intellectual exercise; if there is commentary on modern science, aside from the obvious bureaucracy-getting-in-the-way, I missed it through not understanding enough of it. The biological/social aspect, though, includes a huge amount of commentary on modern Western gender relations, and it’s confronting, frightening, and sometimes scathing. I loved it.
Clockwork ended with a crew aboard the Peerless – a mountain launched into space – setting out with the objective of experimenting and thus hoping to find a solution to the probable destruction of their home world by an oncoming storm of meteors. This is only possible because of the different way light and time work in their universe; by moving away and then retuning home, much more time will have passed for them than on the planet. Because of the discoveries and attitudes, I’ve seen this book described as mirroring the Newtonian/seventeenth century European scientific revolution, which I think makes some sense but I wouldn’t push it too far. Along with the very pressing problem of saving the world, the crew carry in their bodies another issue – an issue that was only just being recognised as an issue: the fact that a mother’s flesh splits into her (usually four) children at ‘birth’. Mixing up the historical periods, this might be seen as somewhat comparable to the long period between Mary Wollstonecraft (late eighteenth century) and the suffrage movement of the early twentieth century (…. would that make Yalda both Ada Lovelace and Millicent Fawcett?? I am loving this idea, daft as it is). Women are starting to think that there might be alternatives to simply living with their co and eventually becoming their children.*
To continue this intriguing historical comparison, Eternal Flame is scientifically moving into an Einstein/Hubble frame of thinking, and socially (I can’t believe the gall of this sentence) into the second-wave feminism of the 1970s (I wish there was an author in the story that I could tag as Joanna Russ, but there’s not). In physics, in particular, there are astounding discoveries being made about the properties of light and heat which are beginning to have profound ramifications for how they think about solving their problem (problems actually, since they also left their planet with no way of getting back with the solution…). Socially, the crew has pretty much always accepted women as being just as worthy in science and other jobs as their male counterparts – not least because many of the crew, especially in the sciences, were women. However, biology is still an issue. The original women used a drug, holin, in order to delay the onset of fission (birth). By this stage – three generations later – still use holin but are also basically starving themselves, for two reasons: both to delay birth, and in the hope that their fission will result in two, rather than four, children. Because the Peerless has experienced a population explosion, and they cannot support every pair becoming five. So (to get back to my comparison), the right of a woman to decide when to have children is one of the big issues – as it was with the introduction of the pill and the controversy over abortion (which I know is still ongoing).**
There are three narrative strands going on here, which frequently intersect but deal with different issues for the ship. I assume they’re meant to be of equal importance, but I’ll be honest and say the one that dealt the most with pretty full-on physics definitely took a bit of a backseat for me, even though I could see how vital it was to the story’s point. Carlo is investigating biology and fertility; both the fact that animals appear to exchange information somehow via infrared… something… and the fact that some animals seem to have adapted to biparous fission very easily. Tamara is an astronomer who observes a massive object outside in the void, and develops an audacious plan to use it somehow. Carla, a physicist, is investigating the properties of light and energy and challenging a lot of preconceived notions in the process.
The novel as a whole does involve a lot of physics-lecture stuff. There really are a lot of vector diagrams, and graphs demonstrating energy levels, and… other things. The biology doesn’t get quite the same treatment, perhaps because it’s not quite so radically different from our world. However, the science is not the be-all of the novel – if it had been I probably wouldn’t have persevered. There’s a bit of action, with an excursion out to the Object Tamara observed and some other dangerous moments for characters I had grown fond of. There’s some great character development, in particular as different people consider the biology issues for themselves and reflect on what it means for them individually and as a society; a few make very surprising decisions that are nonetheless entirely consistent. Being set on a spaceship, large as it is, means that the story is necessarily constrained; keeping the focus on three main protagonists helps with it not feeling claustrophobic but rather focussed, which is also aided by making them active in such different spheres. The physics and biology dominate, as discussed; there are also undercurrents of the frustrations of bureaucracy and the impact of history – after all, this is a generation of people working towards solving a problem for a world they have never known.
If you want to be read a science fiction series that will really challenge you scientifically while also (largely) being very readable, coming complete with a compelling storyline, this is it.
You can get The Eternal Flame at Fishpond.
*I’m well aware that this is grossly unfair and generalising to the women before Wollstonecraft, and in fact Egan does not make it nearly so clear-cut; as with real European history, there have always been women who bucked the trend in this world, too.
**I have no idea where Egan could go with this historical comparison for the next book. Still, it was fun while it lasted.***
***I’m not suggesting Egan did this deliberately. I’m quite sure he didn’t.