The Eternal Flame is the second book in Greg Egan’s Orthogonal trilogy. Once again, he has written an amazing book. The Eternal Flame is as rich and complex as the first book, The Clockwork Rocket.
If you have not read The Clockwork Rocket, I would recommend getting hold of a copy of that first. The story in The Eternal Flame is largely self-contained, with all the characters being new and the setting being mostly different. However, a lot of the unveiling of Greg Egan’s imagined universe happens in the first book, and you will understand what is going on a lot better in The Eternal Flame if you have read The Clockwork Rocket first.
It is a very different universe from ours. Light plays an important role in the Orthogonal universe (a lot of the processes of life rely on light), but it behaves a little differently from what we are used to. In the Orthogonal universe, the speed of light is dependent on its wavelength. When you add to this the fact that time is a physical fourth dimension and that beings can change their shape by extruding new limbs, you have a very alien feeling world.
This second book is set aboard the spaceship Peerless. Right from the first page we are confronted with the problems faced by the travellers, now a number of generations removed from the events in The Clockwork Rocket. Limited resources have forced them to drastic lifestyle choices in order to limit population. The pressure is also on to make advances in science which will enable them to return home and save the homeworld.
The two main protagonists are Carlo and Carla, paired cos who are both at the forefront of their fields. Carlo is a biologist, desperate to find a solution to their population problems in order to offer Carla a different way of life. Meanwhile, Carla is a physicist. She and her students are pushing the boundaries of their understanding of the nature of light and matter. Both of them are working on projects that could bring big changes to life aboard the Peerless. However, this means that both of them come up against opposition from fellow travellers, ranging from scepticism and a lack of support to anger and a resolve to stop them.
As with the Clockwork Rocket, the pages of this book are full of diagrams and explanations of Orthogonal physics. As Carla and her team theorize and investigate, their workings are shown for the readers to follow. With high school physics I was able to follow enough to get the flow, although some of it was over my head. If you have no physics background, you will probably struggle with that part of the book. However, it is a book with so many layers to it, it is still an enjoyable book if you are prepared to let the physics wash over you. If you do want to go further with the physics, you can check out Greg Egan’s website where there are articles and videos that might make it all a bit clearer.
There are many reasons to read this book. Apart from the clever physics and the wonderfully conceived fantasy universe, there are some important themes explored too. Gender issues are explored – the homeworld they have left was a very patriarchal society. The travellers on the Peerless, although determined to change, are still feeling their way. The choices women should have, and the impact those choices have on the rest of the society, play a part in this narrative.
Other issues explored include the balancing of the life and needs of an individual against the needs of the whole society. Another issue the travellers face is the need to take risks to advance knowledge and understanding while remaining careful of the resources available and mindful of the potential impact of those risks. There is also the question of what makes your life count. How much greatness does one need to achieve to have lived fully? Is it enough to live and pass on life to the next generation?
There is drama in this book. The discoveries Carlo and Carla make are interesting, and I found myself eager to find out the results of their next experiment. However, there is also more traditional drama in the form of life-and-death danger and intrigue. Even if the physics explanations are not your cup of tea, it is not a boring book.
I think the thing I liked most about this book, however, is the way the characters are portrayed. It was the same with the first book, The Clockwork Rocket. The people in the Orthogonal universe are definitely alien beings. Their physiology, abilities and reproduction are all quite different from ours. However, within a few pages of the book they feel like friends. Greg Egan has given these alien characters wonderful life.
This is a rich, complex and moving book. It gets a big thumbs up from me, and I am excited about the impending release of the final book in the trilogy, The Arrows of Time.