Book Review: The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

The Clockwork Rocket by Greg EganThe Clockwork Rocket: Orthogonal Book One by Greg Egan

Gollancz, 362pp large format paperback,
£14.99 cover price

Reviewed by R A Bardy [@mangozoid]

I should offer a disclaimer here before we get going: I would not consider myself much of a scientist in any shape or form, and as such a lot of the more complex physics in our own world are completely alien to me. Thus, when I tell you that Greg Egan has effectively ‘rewritten the physics textbook’ in order to bring Clockwork Rocket to the masses, it should come as no surprise that this is quite possibly the hardest of ‘hard SF’ – and to me, one of the hardest to review, so my apologies in advance…

To try and sum up, Yalda is the main protagonist and belongs to a truly ‘alien’ species of near-amorphous shapeshifters for whom a ‘usual form’ is six-limbed, with eyes to the back and front. They are indeed truly alien, with their own reproductive processes, societal norms, etc., but the situation Yalda finds herself in is one many can relate to: she is a loner in her own society, one generally made up of male and female twins (she is a ‘solo’), and her love of science puts her at the forefront of a daring escapade to save her planet from inevitable destruction by Hurtlers (increasingly regular meteor strikes on the planet). The plan, as such, is to basically transform an entire mountain into a rocket, and send it into space along a trajectory that will effectively cross time: it will travel much faster for those travelling on the journey than for those back on the home planet, so the idea is that the ship goes off on a jaunt to research a potential solution to the Hurtler problem, hopefully to return with the answer through generations of research and experimentation, despite only a handful of years passing on Yalda’s home planet (not entirely sure of the name, sorry). Of course, Yalda and her cohorts encounter hostility, resentment, and outright scepticism throughout the book, but when they bear witness to a neighbouring planet effectively destroyed by the Hurtlers, all of a sudden it doesn’t seem like such a bad gambit…

Clockwork Rocket takes at least 200 pages to get going – no kidding – and in that time we are introduced to a variety of concepts and the ‘new physics’ of Egan’s universe which encompasses so many theorems related to light, distance, time, etc. that it’d be too complex to try and explain them all here. Egan himself has written literally thousands of words on the subject on his website (www.gregegan.net), and this book has so many diagrams and explanatory text that at times it felt like I was back at college and crawling through a Physics textbook.

Make your way through this mire of detail and there is a good core story at the root of it, and even some of the characters will resonate (unusual in an Egan story?). For my part, it felt like too much of a struggle for very little pay-off, especially when you consider that this is only the first part of a trilogy, and the ending is hardly really an end at all, although I guess it does set the reader up nicely for part 2, The Eternal Flame.

Also, and I’m not sure if this is a spoiler but I found Yalda’s unexpected trip into the void (yes, she falls ‘off’ the mountain) somewhat hard to stomach, especially when she throws tiny bits of ‘rock’ into space to try and get herself heading back to the mountain… where will these end up, I wonder…? Let’s hope I’m wrong…

* This review originally appeared on the British Fantasy Society website here

 CLICK HERE to find The Clockwork Rocket on Amazon.co.uk

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