Greg Egan is a demonstrably good science fiction author; he has won a Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, among others. When I began reading his latest novel (and
the first in his new “Orthogonal” series), The Clockwork Rocket, I had high hopes that I would love it. The steampunk-sounding title further increased my interest level—I’m a fan of that subgenre.
The thing is, I didn’t research the novel’s actual subject, nor had I read the conclusions of other reviewers. If I had, I might
not have chosen to read it at all. That’s because this novel emphasizes hard science and physics. I prefer science fiction that incorporates science and physics without making it a major plot element, as in The Clockwork Rocket (Orthogonal, Book One). I prefer a novel to focus more on characters and plot and use science and physics as a framework.
That said, The Clockwork Rocket is extremely intelligently written and features interesting (but quite alien) characters. The main character, Yalda, and her planet–one that is very different from the Earth—are both highly original. Yalda and her people can change their shapes by elongating parts of their bodies to form arms and hands, or the types of legs we might associate with beasts of burden on Earth. They are primitive in some ways but possess technology enough to have created trucks, factories, and cities, and to have developed some scientific concepts. They form images and writing of a sort by willing it to appear on the surface of their bodies.
If Greg Egan had been less concerned with proving the validity of the science and physics of Yalda’s everyday existence, I would have enjoyed The Clockwork Rocket much more. For instance, the inclusion of illustrations of the symbols and figures he refers to is more of a distraction from the plot than a helpful explanation of the scientific concepts the author discusses. As another reviewer noted, “I am neither a physicist nor a mathematician.” I come to my opinions about what I read from my interest in language. If a novel goes off in detail about science, math, and/or physics, that tends to negate my interest. If I wanted to read a textbook, that’s what I’d read, not a science fiction novel.
Fortunately, The Clockwork Rocket doesn’t concentrate on the hard science to the
point of rendering it a textbook. Egan’s world-building skills are spectacular, and reading about Yalda’s growth from her upbringing on a rural farm to becoming a scientist is fascinating. Yalda becomes an activist, rejecting the formal traditional roles of her society that encourage women to breed, have babies, and have families in the name of knowledge and science.
It can sometimes be difficult to tell just how much world-building is enough. Egan has posted over 80,000 words on the physics and math of Yalda’s world on his website, over and above what’s in The Clockwork Rocket. He even has tutorial videos online. However cool they may be, when does it begin to become overkill?
Opinions are like a certain part of one’s anatomy associated with excretion—everyone has one. Those who have deeper backgrounds in science, math, and physics than I might think that The Clockwork Rocket is the best novel in the history of mankind. And, despite my complaints, I liked the characters and plot enough to want to keep reading it. I just skipped over some of the more esoteric sections and tried to follow along as best I could. Still, much of the subject matter lies too outside my narrow milieu for me to get into it. I highly recommend The Clockwork Rocket to fans of hard science fiction.
For those who aren't, probably not so much.