A review by Rebecca Muir
- ISBN: 9780575105775
- Page count: 384
- Publisher: Gollancz (Hachette)
The Arrows of Time is the final book in Greg Egan’s Orthogonal trilogy. The first two books, The Clockwork Rocket and The Eternal Flame, have been reviewed by me previously – follow the links to get to the reviews.
This is an amazing trilogy, unlike anything I have ever read. It is set in a fictitious universe where not only are the creatures and planets different but the very laws of physics are different.
In the Orthogonal universe, time is a literal fourth dimension and the speed of light is proportional to its wavelength. Throughout all three books, the sentient creatures (we’ll call them people for want of a better term) who live in this universe gradually move through an increase in their scientific understanding and the readers are treated to explanations between characters and diagrams as the understanding unfolds.
If you are a physicist, you will likely find this fascinating. I have done high-school level physics and studied engineering at university and I didn’t understand all of it – it would have required too much extra time to stop and think it all through, and I would have lost the thread of the story. However, I understood enough to follow the implications of the discoveries for the storyline. If you have no scientific training, you will likely find all the science quite confusing but if you are willing to skim past the explanations, these books are still well worth the read.
In the Orthogonal universe, because time is a physical dimension, it is possible to arrange your travel so that your time vector is perpendicular to someone else’s. This means that you can travel for a long time without it taking up any time for the other person. When the home world realises they are facing a threat from space, a group of travellers do just that, flying the rocket Peerless into space to buy themselves time to find a solution to save the planet.
The universe Greg Egan has created has other quirks as well. The biology and reproduction system is very different. It appears that water is non-existent in this universe. Light plays a similar role to electricity in our world. The people can change their shape at will, extruding and absorbing limbs as they see fit. They require air in space, as we do, but it is not to breathe – it is to keep them cool and stop them dying of hyperthermia. There are many strange things about the universe Greg Egan has imagined, but the characters are so vivid that I found myself quickly drawn into the story, identifying so well with the characters that they quickly lost their strangeness.
This third book, the Arrows of Time, is set a couple of generations after the second book. Technology on the Peerless has progressed rapidly and they are now at the stage where they can turn the ship around and head for home. They are close to a solution for the home world and are confident that it can be perfected in the six generations it will take them to return. However, there are still discoveries to be made and challenges to face. A major challenge comes in the form of a message system, which has the potential (due to the fact that light can travel against your time stream in this universe) to allow messages to be sent back from the future. This technology splits the Peerless as people have to decide whether they want to know what their future holds, or not.
Meanwhile, the turning of the Peerless allows a new opportunity. There are planets which they are now in sync with and an expedition is mounted to one of them. This will allow some measurements to be made which will have implications for a vital theorem, as well as provide a chance to explore the possibility of creating a colony if the divisions on the Peerless cannot be peacefully mended. The main characters end up on this expedition that proves to be important for the future of not only the Peerless but also the home world.
Besides the science, this book has a number of issues it raises and explores. The question of free will and destiny is a big one – if the characters already know what will happen, how much of what they do is free will? Is what happens just an unchangeable destiny? How much can knowledge of the future give them hope, and how much can it paralyze them from making decisions?
Another theme which has been a part of the trilogy is that of gender roles, in particular how they are viewed by society. In the first book, the culture of the home world is very patriarchal. The role of a woman is to help her mate and then bear children. On board the Peerless, things have been changing. In this third book, society has now come to a point where males are feeling threatened – does the species actually need them? Will males cease to exist? Concepts of gender and gender roles are explored and an interesting conclusion is reached.
The species in this universe, by the nature of their biological differences, face different challenges than humanity does in the area of gender politics and discrimination, but there are overlaps and relevant observations made. I found the potential challenge of the returning Peerless to the culture of the home world particularly interesting. It can be hard to be faced with very different values to your own, and to have to sort through where your own values come from, and what is worth holding onto.
Another major theme explored by the book is that of legacy. What makes your life meaningful? Is contributing some small increment to the collective knowledge enough, or do we need to make our mark in a big way? Is it enough to have children, and make them our legacy? Is it ok to choose not to reproduce – what becomes of us if we don’t pass on a part of ourselves through our children?
The Arrows of Time was, in some ways, harder to read than the first two books in this trilogy. The implications of the time arrows was quite mind boggling and I found some of the subject matter a bit more depressing than the other books. However, it was as well written and interesting as the others, and brought the series to a good conclusion. Greg Egan is to be congratulated on this trilogy – it is an amazing piece of work. The science, the universe he has created, the themes he explores and the rich, vibrant characters all make this a superb trilogy that I highly recommend.