The Clockwork Rocket (Orthogonal Trilogy #1) by Greg Egan Rothdas book review RSS
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This is a deeply flawed story. On the one hand, it describes a completely alien universe. The narrator is a shape shifter with multiple eye/brain nodes that can extrude appendages at will and reproduce in a fashion similar to yeast. Her universe has a different topology than our own, and a different set of fundamental physics. On the other hand, the characters in the book are basically western academics. They are professors, tutors, and students, they have academic turf battles and political spats. They care about things like "science", they have egos at all. This is kind of idiotic. First, why bother having aliens if you are just going to make them act like humans? Second, these concepts of science and ego do not mean anything to my cat, much less to xenomorphs from an alien dimension. Other sci-fi stories have dealt with the problem of describing the alien in various clever ways. For instance, the thematically similar "A Deepness in the Sky" explains the anthropomorphizing needed to tell a story as a deliberate propaganda tactic by certain characters to induce empathy for the aliens. Clockwork Rocket isn't really clever like that. Even with the anthropomorphizing, the characterization is mostly thin gruel. We never really care for the characters or get a sense for their society except that it is basically an analogue of western-academic society.

Despite this, the story still could have been salvaged. There are plenty of shallow books that don't make much sense but are still fun to read. And the basic trope is sound: characters/society need to advance up the tech tree as quickly as possible in order to meet some oncoming challenge. Unfortunately, Egan has decided that he needs to model the physics of his alternate universe in exacting detail. About 1/3 of the total pages are spent in detailed optics/physics lessons. I didn't appreciate it when my college professors tried to teach me physics, and I appreciate it even less when Egan does. These horrid info dumps are hung around the neck of the story like a flock of rotting albatrosses, and they consistently stop the narrative dead every 30 pages. While these mathematical explorations may seem seem superficially smart, I balk at the idea that anyone can make multiple large revisions to fundamental physics and then comprehend the ripple effects this will have over the ~100 orders of magnitude contained in the universe. At this stage, you are so far off the map that you should just say "a wizard did it" rather than wasting 100 pages of charts and graphs laying out the incorrect science of a made up universe. What makes this all the worse is that in the end all of this effort is wasted, since the characters in the made up world could just as easily have been Egan's colleagues in the faculty lounge.