Greg Egan is one of the best Science Fiction writers of his generation and the Clockwork Rocket, part of the Orthogonal series, reminds you just how amazing he is. Mixing philosophy, mortality, historical fiction, feminism the physics of an alternate universe, while set in a version of Renaissance Italy populated by aliens whose female sex has to die to reproduce the species on a world threatened by the fragments traveling at it from the past across the universe with the only answer being a generation ship that will dramatically upgrade science over a thousand years that will pass in four years from a civilization that is only capable of launching a clockwork rocket. The Clockwork Rocket is Science Fiction as a fireworks display of ideas. It is Science Fiction at its best.
40 years ago, Asimov wrote an uncharacteristically bad novel, The Gods Themselves. The novel won a Hugo because it was about the environment and all that kind of important stuff, but it was a disaster because Asimov, in trying to write a novel set in an alien universe with aliens with three genders and little recognizably human about them, was operating completely outside his zone.
Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket takes on an alien universe with alien characters and makes it work beautifully. It works most beautifully at its beginning, as Egan slowly draws out Yalda’s biology with a fairy tale beginning that slowly drops new shocking revelations while still grounding the character and the world in a few familiar reference points. This mix of the old and the new, the familiar and the strange, works, transforming the life on Yalda’s world into a mysterious but horrifyingly familiar coming of age story.
The Clockwork Rocket slows down once Yalda is at the university and takes on a bit of the grad student in the 40’s air, but it remains fascinating and speeds up again as Yalda’s theories revolutionize her society and predict an end that she has to avert in generation ship built inside a mountain and launched by primitive explosives. It’s clever and compelling. None of the individual parts are all that new, but Greg Egan takes things that did not work all that well individually and turns them into something amazing together.
This is a story of science and discovery, but it’s also a story of mortality. Every effort that Yalda makes to live life on her own terms, in a species where giving birth to children means death and women have to take birth control pills to survive, the efforts that she then makes to save her species, don’t save her from her own mortality.
The Clockwork Rocket is a book about light. It begins with the death of Yalda’s grandfather as he dies going to light in a tremendous explosion. It is bisected by the Hurtlers, light streaking across the sky and warning of the danger to the world, and it ends with Yalda giving in and taking in the light to die and give birth.