the Little Red Reviewer

Clockwork Rocket, by Greg Egan

Posted on: September 17, 2012

Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

published in 2011

where I got it: purchased new

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Three cheers to Egan for being wildly innovative and offering a triple threat in Clockwork Rocket – a four dimensional world that has it’s own physics,  a fully developed alien race with it’s own cultural norms and unique biology, and to top it off he’s placed his story in a time where our aliens are experiencing an enlightening time, a period full of scientific exploration and inventions, where physicists and chemists are learning the rules of how their universe works, the beginning of their modern age.  Egan certainly is ambitious, I’ll give him  that.

Clockwork Rocket opens with our main character Yalda, as she leaves her rural home and ventures into the big city for an education at the university. Many people feel that it’s a waste to educate women, but Yalda’s father felt all his children should have the opportunity for an education.  Egan drops the reader into the story in the deep end, but don’t worry, all will be revealed.

As Yalda completes her education, she falls in with a feminist group, a group of women who have either left their mates, or have decided they aren’t interested in mating, and all of whom illegally take birth control chemicals.  Birth control is incredibly important, and not for the obvious reasons.  These beings have completely different biology than we do, and telling you more would be a major spoiler. As interesting as that is, it’s not even the main plot line.  Yalda and her fellow physicists have discovered something very dangerous that’s hurtling through space towards their planet. Something that is moving orthoganally, at an angle to the expected dimensions. Their society is just discovering science, just discovering the laws of physics, how can they possibly come up with the technology needed to save their planet?

And then there is the math.  the great thing about math is that everything works on paper. Calculations that in real life don’t make any sense, work like clockwork on paper. Math will let you do just about anything. Even stop time, or travel through it.  And thus, we get to the crux of the story. Thanks to their mathematics and the unique physics of their universe, Yalda and her teammates hatch an ambitious plan to travel orthogonally in space, to travel perpendicular to their own time line. While on their mission, time will be standing still at home. If it works, they’ll have unlimited time to come up with the needed technologies to save their civilization. If it works, they’ll come home just in time to be heroes.

Clockwork Rocket just about explodes with potential, and if it wasn’t for one speed bump to enjoyment, it could have been momentously brilliant.  

Said speed bump was how the story was put together, and that’s a pretty big problem.  Egan really wants his readers to understand the math and the physics behind what’s happening. That’s great.  And the characters talk about the math all the time. All the bloody time!  It doesn’t matter what people are talking about – their families back home, politics, ethnic foods, anything, the conversations nearly always turned into a math lecture. Complete with diagrams. I felt like I was reading Flatterland, and that book is in the non-fiction section of the library for a reason. (Flatterland is a story about calculus, and I highly recommend it. If I’d read it while in high school, pre-calc and calc wouldn’t have been so torturous).

On the one hand, a hard scifi book should have math. It should have physics, it should have complicated discussion, damnit, it should have all that science.  On the other hand, all that beautiful math shouldn’t get in the way of the reader enjoying the story.  In Clockwork Rocket, it got in my way. By the end, I found myself skimming entire paragraphs, looking for exposition or dialog that wasn’t a math or physics lecture.   Scientific proofs and diagrams be damned, I was interested in learning if Yalda’s project was successful, but Egan still felt that me understanding the math was more important.

All that innovation, all that ambitious and uniquely startling biology, it got buried bodily under the weight of all those diagrams, all those calculations. It’s one thing to want a dictionary at hand when reading a China Mieville, it’s an entirely different thing to want a college maths professor on speed dial when reading a hard scifi book. I was discussing this book with a friend, and he brought David Brin into the discussion. I replied that when it comes to making hard scifi hard, Egan makes Brin look like J.K. Rowling.

Egan kindly offers a ton of support material on his website. But with articles on curved space general relativity and thermodynamics , I think I’ll just sit in my corner and read something my little brain has a better chance of understanding.

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10 Responses to "Clockwork Rocket, by Greg Egan"

Wow, thank you so much for this review! I was so excited up until the paragraphs of math, and now I’m still excited, but definitely will have to find a time that I’m not already doing classwork to read this book. Have you read anything else by this author?

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this is my first Egan, and I’d try him again, provided his other books were a little easier on the brain. I don’t mind a lot of math and hard science in my fiction, but to not be expecting it, and then get punched in the head with it, kinda caught me off guard, you know?

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I’ve seen this one at the library and wondering if I dared pick it up (anything with ‘clockwork’ in the title is enticing, and therefore dangerous). I think I’ll wait and see… and maybe read the first few chapters at the bookstore before making up my mind.

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with the word “Clockwork” in the title, I was expecting something steampunk-ish or gaslight-ish. The civilization has clockwork technology, but this isn’t anything close to a steampunk.

if you see it at the bookstore, pick it up, take a look, read the first few pages. and then flip the pages until you get to all those diagrams.

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“. . . . when it comes to making hard scifi hard, Egan makes Brin look like J.K. Rowling.”

This is a helpful review – and it almost makes me feel like reading the book just out of stubbornness to conquer another really-difficult hard-scifi novel. But it does beg the question: how important is the balance between science and fiction in the contemporary scifi novel? Thanks for sharing!

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“But it does beg the question: how important is the balance between science and fiction in the contemporary scifi novel? ”

hmmm . . . me thinks i have another blog post to write, unless you want to beat me to it? I do love math and hard science in my fiction, but apparently I’ve met my limit.

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Sounds like an interesting book! I’ll have to check it out sometime :)

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if you run into a copy, pick it up and see if it’s something you’d be interested. :)

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Bit turned off by all the maths I’m afraid – maths just never was my strong point.
Lynn :D

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i thought I was ok at maths. then I read this, and now I feel like a 3rd grader. A friend of mine is a maths prof at a university, and he doesn’t know it yet, but I’m giving this book to him!

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