The Clockwork Rocket is the first book in Greg Egan’s Orthogonal trilogy. It is quite different to any other science fiction book I have read. Greg Egan does not content himself with imagining a different world with alien beings (although he does do that). He also imagines a whole new system of physics and laws of nature, in a whole different universe. Starting with the idea of a system where time really is a fourth dimension (where measurements in space can become measurements in time when you rotate them orthogonally), he follows that through and develops a theory of light and matter.
This development of the theory happens in the story itself. The book follows Yalda, a young woman from a backwater village who, through a freak of nature, is born different from those around her – she is born a Solo, rather than part of a paired co. This sets her up for ridicule throughout her life, but it also means she is freer than most women in her society to choose her own destiny. Her father recognises her sharp mind and sends her to school. She continues on to university and becomes a leading physicist. Throughout the book, Valda’s development of “rotational physics” is presented as she muses on the nature of things and as she discusses the theories with colleagues and students. Diagrams are scattered through the text. There is also a summary at the end of the book if you had trouble following it in the story.
There are many layers in this book, which will hopefully give it a wider range of appeal than it would otherwise have. There is the discussion and development of “rotational physics”, which will appeal most to those who enjoy physics and maths in this universe. If this is not you, it is possible to still enjoy this book if you are happy to just let the technical discussion go over your head and accept the outcomes reached. However, a certain level of understanding of maths and physics will be beneficial in reading this book. I studied those subjects at a high school level, but the only university level physics I did was that which was included in my engineering degree. I confess that some of the theoretical discussion went a little over my head, but I think that anyone who has at least done physics and maths at year 12 level should be able to follow it enough to not feel completely overwhelmed.
If you are a bit put off by the physics, it is still a book worth persevering with if you enjoy stories about alien worlds and beings. The universe, apart from the different physics, is quite different in other ways too – flowers that glow at night, beings that can change shape at will, rocks that ignite when exposed to the right plant derivatives, and a very different reproductive process. Greg Egan has developed an intriguing world which it was a delight to unravel the mysteries of.
There is also drama and adventure – a catastrophe of end-of-the-world potential looms, and Yalda and her colleagues must seek to understand more about it and then dare a mind-blowing feat. They don’t know how to avert the disaster, so they decide to launch a rocket that will give the inhabitants generations to solve the problem without taking generations back on the home world.
The book also deals with themes of social norms and constraints, and the need to go against convention when society is unjust. Yalda must go against the flow in her personal life, but she must also struggle in her professional life as she seeks to convince those in power that action is needed, despite great risk and great cost.
This book appealed to me on all these levels, and I do recommend it to fans of science fiction. It is a clever, multi-faceted and surprisingly readable book given the theoretical discussions.