Saturday, July 28, 2012

Greg Egan

Greg Egan is one of the strangest authors I've ever read. He writes basically the hardest science fiction there is. By that I mean that his books are often about some idea in physics he wants to explore, rather than some part of the human condition.

For example, one of his most recent books is The Clockwork Rocket, the first part in an intended three part trilogy. The clockwork rocket is set in a universe with very difficult physical rules to our own. Those with a passing knowledge of physics might know that the faster you go, the slower time passes for you in this universe. Were we able to travel at the speed of light, we could effectively travel into the future (and could we exceed the speed of light, we would reach the past, thus violating causality). In the universe of the Clockwork Rocket, the opposite is true: travel fast enough and time stops in the external universe, but continues for you.

This is a fun notion, but Egan doesn't just leave it at that. Instead he has taken some results from relativity and applied some tweaks, and looked at all the conclusions. And he kind of wants you to know. A good third of the novel is people having conversations about physics, including diagrams explaining it. The heroine, Yalda, discovers the book's version of relativity, and you follow her doing so.

Its... a bit weird to be honest. I have, in the past, read entertaining non-fiction books explaining some basic concepts in physics, but to do so requires thinking. You need to think about what the text says, apply it to the diagram, and thus achieve comprehension. This is fine if you want to understand how the world works, but in the context of a fictional book... I don't really care. I don't really want to spend the time required to comprehend Egan's made up physics, I'm sort of happy enough to accept that it works the way it does. Perhaps for the enthusiastic reader, he could have provided this material as additional material (and indeed there is in fact additional material of this vein available on his website!), but in the book proper, it breaks the flow.

The rest of the narrative is reasonably engaging, Yalda's struggles in a male dominated society are quite good, but the pacing is kind of nuts. The book spends 2/3rds not in the rocket itself, occasionally presenting genuine struggles Yalda is facing, and occasionally just lecturing physics. Even some of the struggles are weirdly resolved: Some of Egan's writing reminds me of Asimov's Foundation books, which often set up a particular problem that the society he invented (the Foundation) was facing clearly, then explained how it was resolved. In Egan's case, the problem is set up, but then its just written away by some external event. Asimov would attribute the solution to the cleverness of his heroes, but quite frequently the solution is external to Yalda, even when she is actively trying to solve it.

For instance, once on the rocket Yalda is almost lost to weightlessness. She tries to return by throwing rocks: a reasonably ingenious method, but this doesn't work. Instead she's just rescued by another character. The rescue itself doesn't seem particularly significant either: the character who rescues her was already shown to like her, so it doesn't really seem to have much point, other than setting up another problem Yalda notices during this time.... which is also resolved through no real agency of the main character.

Despite all this, I still find Egan strangely readable. His characters are just enough relatable, and the plot just enough engaging, to keep me going. I still wish there was a bit more bite to it all though.


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