Friday, 9 March 2012

Greg Egan, The Clockwork Rocket (2011)


Prœgan: Yalda is an alien entity who lives in a cosmos where physics is shaped by different determining fundamentals. Most particularly, the speed of light is not a universal constant, and the creation of light generates energy. Instead of absorbing light from the sun and photosynthesising it, plants emit various wavelengths of light to make their food. Yalda herself is an amiable loner. One of a somatomorph species, she is larger than most and solitary where the default is to be paired with a mate. In her species females die giving birth; but postponing mating can lead to involuntary parthenogenesis. Yalda observes strange light-trails in the night sky, and is amongst the first to recognise that they are meteors (they become known as ‘the Hurtlers’) potentially enormously dangerous for Yalda’s world. A group of scientists recognise the danger. They decide to do something about it. But what can be done? The Hurtlers are symptoms of Yalda’s cosmos coming into collision with another cosmos, one that runs on an orthogonal physics. Perhaps the collision will be only a glancing blow, but that seems unlikely. As Yalda herself notes much more likely is that ‘the Hurtlers will keep coming, ever larger and in ever-greater numbers, until the odds that we’re struck approach a certainty. If we survive that we’ll probably collide with an orthogonal clump of gas—turning the world into something like a giant Hurtler ... the world will end as a lifeless mass of thermal fluctuations in a state of maximum entropy.’ A daring plan is hatched. Because of the nature of physics of this cosmos, travel at relativistic speeds involves much more subjective time for the travellers than it does for those waiting at home: a spacecraft, the Peerless, is dispatched. Its flight will seem to last only four years from the point of view of the world, but will last through many generations of shipboard time, giving the crew of scientists time to develop new technological and scientific remedies. The novel feels longer than its 300+ pages, but only because Egan is not a writer who pads or wastes space. There is a challenging, and (ultimately) intensely intellectually rewarding density to this work. The science is both rigorously extrapolated and brilliantly original; the worldbuilding is immersive, detailed and immaculately worked-through; the ideas little short of mind-blowing.

At the heart of all of this is science, and the scientific method in its most appropriately sciencefictional form—the thought experiment. Tolkien is praised by critics for creating an entire parallel human culture, including background history, languages and customs; but Egan has achieved something more capacious, more ambitious and considerably more impressive: not only an entire alien biology and society, but an entire new kind of physical universe. There isn’t another SF writer capable of it, I think. True, the early portions of the novel read in a rather, shall we say, up-hill manner—the premises of this universe are so different, and there is just a certain quantity of material the reader must grasp if she if fully to appreciate the rest of the novel. But SF fans claim to be interested in the new, in challenging and intellectually stimulating fiction. They should be called on those claims. Clockwork Rocket makes an effective test-case: if this doesn’t grab you, then perhaps you’re not a true SF fan. If that’s the case, don’t worry! There is plenty of soft-sf, or indeed Fantasy in the bookshops. Maybe you’d enjoy that more.

Antegan: The first half of this novel is one of the most indigestible reading experiences I have ever had. The book does get a little more readable in the second half, but not much. At one point a scientist-character explains to another scientist-character that talking of infinite velocity is no more intrinsically absurd than describing an upright pole as possessing ‘infinite slope’. Through too much of Clockwork Rocket the learning curve approaches that asymptote, and reading is too strenuously like trying to haul oneself up such a pole. The emotional narrative here—Yalda’s struggles against social and scientific prejudice, against a backdrop of the threat of global annihilation—is almost wholly swamped by the minutely delineated discussions of physics and science. Clotted with diagrams and equations, dense to the point of frank indigestibility, this is a novel that grows grey with the breath of Scientist discussing endlessly with Scientist about Science. Indeed, at places the novel reads almost like a radical experimentation in anti-art, an exercise in seeing how much raw intellectual weight the load-bearing walls of aesthetics (let’s say, ‘character’, ‘style’, ‘form’ and ‘image’) can stand. And perhaps that’s fair enough; for half of ‘science fiction’ is science. But half is fiction, and the fiction here is so rebarbative handled, so uncompromisingly subordinated to rational extrapolation, that it withers on the vine.

Prœgan: What nonsense! You’ve done this sort of thing before, you antieganic fool, in your wrongheaded Strange Horizons review of Egan’s Incandescence (2008). There you perpetrated a kind of category error of critical judgment. Specifically, you complained that a novel explicitly dedicated to the elaboration of a number of brilliantly original conceptual and physical ideas did not dissipate itself in Henry Jamesian excursi of psychological and stylistic extravagance. What nonsense! In Clockwork Rocket, scientists give a public lecture warning their world of the very real dangers facing them, but a fashionable magazine called Talk reports the occasion in a smugly dismissive and complacent manner.
When Yalda reached the apartment Daria was awake, so she showed her the piece. “I wouldn’t pay too much attention to Talk,” Daria said loftily. “Their idea of pushing the intellectual boundaries of journalism is to cover a literary salon.” “What’s a literary salon?” “An event where people who can’t read or reason gather to reassure each other of their own importance.” [158]
That’s you, that is. My guess is that Egan will be perfectly indifferent to reviews written from within such a salon; and so will his fans. His novel deserves to be judged for its pushing of intellectual boundaries—its ideas. And its ideas are amazing.

Antegan: But novels are not made out of ideas. Novels are made out of words. Nature shows itself to us, and science sets out to explain that show, to tell us what is going on. In this sense, science tells, it doesn’t show. But there’s some merit in the old adage that art should show, not tell, for all that; and it’s an adage that Egan resolutely repudiates. The ‘literary salon’ snipe is an aside, and most of the novel doesn’t worry itself about that sort of thing; but I thought it ill-judged nonetheless ... not because its implicit criticism of Humanities types necessarily lacks point, but because it betrays, even only briefly, a kind of slippage of nerve; a queasiness that this text is setting itself up to be judged by the criteria of ‘literature’ at all. It wants to be assessed on the grounds of its novel and complex ideational content, not on the tedious extrapolative prose, its meagre characterisation, its economy-brand minimum efficiency form and narrative structure. It lacks grace, it evinces neither charm and wit, it is not stylishly done. This is not a work of literary art that burns with the hard gemlike flame. We ought to hold out for the highest standards in our SF content—but we ought simultaneously hold out for the highest standards in our SF style and form too. Why can’t be have both? At any rate, we don’t get both in this novel. It is uneasy with its own mode. Clockwork Rocket is one-fifth Novel and four-fifths Lecture.

Prœgan: What’s wrong with lectures? Lectures can be illuminating. Lectures can change lives.

Antiegan: There’s nothing wrong with lectures. But we’re talking about a novel, here. Or to put it another way: what does the—undeniably cool and original and thought-provoking—worldbuilding of Clockwork Rocket gain from being cast in the form of a novel? Why not simply publish it as a treatise?

Prœgan: Why? Because the characters and their stories personalise the physics. We learn the world alongside Yalda. It is not simply the ‘cool worldbuilding’ as you rather dismissively put it; it is also the thrill of scientific discovery. We can retrace the steps Einstein trod, and get some, second-hand sense of the thrill he must have experienced discovering an entirely new physics. But Egan gives us the chance to do more than that; because his physics is newly minted for this imaginary world, and this means—if only we are ready to make a little effort—we get to experience the excitement of discovery (as it were) first hand! You say the opening sections are dense, and perhaps they are; but they are necessarily so. An attentive reader will find the opening of this novel a necessary pedagogy in order to take the force of the later sections.

Antegan: ‘The characters and their stories personalise the physics,’ you say. But I don’t think this happens; or at least, it did not for me. The prose is too pedestrian. The characters are weakly drawn to emotionally engage us. Yalda’s problems were too flattering to the sensibilities of the thoughtful SF-nerd (a bit of an outsider, a bit looked-down upon, yet Slannishly in possession of truths that will shape the future of the whole world). The other characters were of varying varieties of cardbosity.

Prœgan: Cardbosity is not even a word!

Antegan: I’m not trying to be prescriptive here: art can come in manifold forms, of course. But the test no art can afford to fail is the test of dullness. And that Dunciad quality is what informs much too much of the prose here. This is what it’s like at the beginning:
“If you plot the downward force on the book against its height above the ground,” [Yalda] said, “it’s a constant, a flat, straight line. Now think about the area under that line up to the point representing the book’s current height. When the book falls, the reduction in the area—the little rectangle that gets chopped off—will equal the force on the book times the distance it travels—which is precisely the amount by which its kinetic energy increases: force times distance.” Eusebio examined the diagram. “All right.” [39]
And this is what it’s like at the end:
Yalda said: “exactly. And the thing is, the shape of the potential energy that we get from Nereo’s equation doesn’t allow for perfect orbits, or perfect rolling in the valleys. The main cycle can have a high enough frequency to avoid creating light, but the potential has built-in flaws that guarantee that there’ll be lower-frequency motion as well. It seems to be unavoidable.” “But solid don’t blow themselves up,” Fatima proclaimed irritably. “Not without a liberator.” “Of course,” said Yalda. “... there must be something we;re missing ... There are plenty of symmetrical polyhedrons where putting a luxagen at every vertex gives you a mechanically stable configuration--which seems to make them good candidates for the little balls of matter of which we expect a gas to be comprised. But those polyhedrons share the problem solids have: the luxagens rolling in their energy valleys will always have some low frequency components to their motion, so they ought to give off light and blow the whole structure apart.” [305]
It’s like that for the large part of what lies in between too.

Prœgan: If you want to read stories written according to Jamesian, Joycean or Nabokovian sensibilities, read James, Joyce and Nabokov. This book is science fiction. I’d invite you to consider that simple fact again: science fiction. Are you really complaining that this science fiction is too committed to the science, both on the level of content and clear, expository style? There is nobody who commands the science of hard science fiction like Egan.

Antegan: SF is a metaphorical literature, one that aims to reproduce the world without representing it. It is more akin to poetry than it is to science.

Prœgan: I honestly don’t recognise the genre at all from this description. SF is the imaginative extrapolation of scientific premises. Poetry, howsoever pretty, is nothing but vagueness. Metaphors? M John Harrison’s much praised Light does tremendous things with style and form and literary experimentation, I don’t doubt; but compare its understanding of its titular quantity with Egan’s. Egan’s novel makes light new! It compels us to look again at this ubiquitous thing; it refreshes it and opens it out, conceptually—and it does all that not through fuzzy metaphors, but by the rigorous application of scientific extrapolation from core principles.

 Antegan: I wonder if you mention Harrison by way of trying to anticipate one criticism of Egan’s novel? A few years ago Harrison, of course, wrote eloquently and—I would say—with superb perception about ‘worldbuilding’. His essay could be taken as embodying all that is wrong with Clockwork Rocket. It’s already been widely quoted, but I think it can stand being quoted once again: ‘Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, and if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication -- lifelong study.’ Clockwork Rocket is the triumph of worldbuilding over writing.

Prœgan: I can only shake my head. Perhaps it really does look like that, from inside the salon! If so, I can only say: you should get out more. Worldbuilding bad? How can you say so! It can hardly be anything other than a mode of building, after all. It is construction and creativity. Critics like you pretend to object to novels of the sort Egan writes from the position of ‘artistry’ and ‘aesthetics’—but isn’t architecture an art? Doesn’t it bring newness and order and beauty into the world along with its utility? Mightn’t you want to at least consider that a novel can be made with the virtues of good architecture, just as some other novels have been made to imitate music or painting? For it seems to me that conceptual architecture is an altogether more impressive undertaking than conceptual sonnet-writing or conceptual action painting. You think a Louise Bourgeois spider more impressive than a box girder bridge? The bridge has all the structural complexity and expressiveness of the sculpture, plus it has one added advantage: you can use it to get across the river. Similarly, a masterclass in worldbuilding—like Clockwork Rocket—gives the reader all the complexity of any artwork, but it will also teach you about the universe in which you live. Who opposes builders? Wreckers and vandals, that’s who.

Antegan: You’re missing my point. Science tells us that the cosmos is immensely diverse and complex. A fiction predicated upon science ought to reflect this: ought to prize diversity and complexity. Two-dimensional caricature and simplification, stereotype and ‘plain’ style have no place here. You think the book of the universe is written in a plain style? Stanisław Lem, an expert at the marriage of science and literature, once talked about the difference between them. Science, he said, is about asking questions, attempting to describe the world and looking for answers. Literature, on the other hand, may pose questions that have no answers. It may pose questions that are not understood or understandable.

Prœgan; I don’t see what this has to do with Egan.

Antegan: I’m saying Clockwork Rocket lacks negative capability.

Prœgan: You’re saying it bored you. I reply: saying so reveals a great deal about you, and very little about the novel.

Antegan: No! Well, yes ... it did bore me. And I’m not proud of that reaction. But that’s not really the basis of my objection. SF strikes me, necessarily, as an ironic mode of art—its relationship to reality is not mimetic, but neither is it entirely arbitrary or disconnected (we would hardly care about it, if so). Yalda’s struggles, as a female, against ingrained sexism in this novel clearly have some relationship to sexism in our world; although raised to a hyperbolic level by the biological difficulties of being female in this imagined world. But as an intervention into discourses of female experience, this novel is one-dimensional and thumb-in-the-balance. That’s not where it’s genius lies; because its genius is meticulously and, indeed, earnestly building its imaginary physics from its new premises. It is as unironic a novel as I can think of.

Prœgan: You say that like it’s a bad thing. It’s not.

Antegan: We’ll have to agree to disagree.

13 comments:

Bob Blough said...

Oh boy. You wrote out both sides of my brain as I worked through "Transcendence" a few years ago. So, as much as I have loved Egan in the past his novels are now so muchabout one side of my brain fighting with another side of my brain about what I should be experiencing while reading his work that the book becomes nothing and my "shoulds" and "should-nots become paramount. I think I'll remain in awe of Egan's world-building (and it truly is awe) but read a novel instead.

Peter Hollo said...

It's sad that once upon a time Egan didn't evoke exactly this sensation (mostly that of Antiegan) in me. I don't know whether that's because when I read his, say, pre-Diaspora novels (and stellar short fiction) I didn't have the literary sensibility necessary to worry about the quality of the writing, or whether his writing really has deteriorated into exclusively unstylish, unengaging lecturing - I think a bit of both. I don't think he was ever a terribly stylish writer, but I think there used to be more writing from, rather than about (at best) characters' experiences and feelings. I can't help feeling that there used to be more colour and movement and effort in storytelling to garb the mindblowing ideas - although admittedly the ideas he was interested up until the last few novels was more up my alley.

But that's not true, because Zendegi goes back to consciousness, AI, racism, all the interesting stuff.
In Zendegi, although the ideas also weren't that mindblowing, it was the constant semicolons disrupting the flow that came to characterise the problems I had with the novel. The characters' feelings were constantly meted out in logically-reasoned chunks so that any immediacy is completely sucked away. Any of the wonder you're meant to feel at the ideas is muted by the struggle to want to keep reading.

This is awfully depressing, as Egan is the one writer above all others who made me excited again about science fiction in the mid-to-late '90s, and made me the sf fan I am today. But The Clockwork Rocket sits upon my to-read shelf and will probably keep getting overtaken by other books until the whole trilogy is out (and purchased by me, of course), and maybe some day I'll make the effort to read it.

Peter Hollo said...

*ahem* "the ideas he was interested in up until the last few novels were more up my alley."

Peter Hollo said...

(Interestingly, the "semicolon problem" also haunted my reading of (another old favourite) Al Reynolds' latest. I didn't find it as unstylish as recent Egan, but I did also find it hard going, and the viewpoint characters were so interchangeable that it was kind of embarrassing realising we were suddenly in the sister's POV rather than the brother's...)

Jetse de Vries said...

Great review, Adam.

I've got "The Colckwork Rocket" on my bookshelf and hope to get to it soon.

Now, suppose a foolhardy writer would combine both hard SF and experimental literature, would it fall through all the cracks? Including the slipstream and interstitial ones?

Ian said...

wait... there's a character called Eusebio?

Karen Burnham said...

Bravo, Adam! Wonderfully done!

I will say: in the prescription that fiction not be *dull*, that is 100% subjective, such that I didn't find CR dull and you did. No real arguing with either perception, it just is what it is.

I've got an argument worked out where writing alt-physics is a bit like writing alt-history. A Lee-won-at-Gettysburg story is going to have much less impact on someone who has never heard of the American Civil War, they'll wonder what all the fuss is about with this bog-standard old-time story. Likewise, it's hard to sell alt-physics to people who have only vague memories of teenage physics courses.

Re: women in CR. SF is often a literature of metaphor, and Egan's sf often is not. However, the metaphor of women in science being literally erased by childbirth *really* hit home for me, as I read it while going through my pregnancy while working at NASA. It was a wonder to read my experience finally reflected in some way in sf where I never had before--think back, how many pregnant scientists have you read about, seen, or known of before? Yeah, exactly. And let me tell you, it can seem like a potentially life-ending event, especially as people are telling you: "Don't think we're trying to replace you, but could you interview this guy who'd be a perfect replacement for you? Thanks!"

I do think it's a shame that the alt-physics drowns out what I thought was some of Egan's most on-point social world-building, but when it comes down to dullness and sf-as-metaphor, I think it's all in the eye of the beholder.

Adam Roberts said...

That is very interesting, Karen. You're right, of course; I neither could nor would dispute your experience of reading the novel. In fact it's more than a novel; it's a symptomatic text -- it asks us all questions such as: is this where SF is going?

I'm not sure I'm persuaded by your alt-historical parallel, though. History is something that touches all out lives; we all live in it, it inevitably shapes us. The same is not true of science. (It's true of technology, but Egan isn't particualrly interested in technology. He's interested in Science). An alt-historical novel can hardly help but engage us on a human level; a novel about Science may well not.

Karen Burnham said...

Adam - I don't think CR is particularly emblematic of any larger trends in sf. Egan has always been a bit of an outlier, and one of the reasons we keep talking about him is because he is such an extreme example of out-there sf. I don't see too many people stepping up to follow in those footsteps.

I'm a bit shocked though to hear that we are not steeped in science the way we are in history. So much of what we know about the world and even how we view the world is a product of the enlightenment scientific worldview, even when we don't consciously think of 'doing science.' Repeatable phenomena, insisting on evidence to back up claims, predicting what will happen tomorrow based on what happened today (as opposed to the interpretation of signs and portents) are all science-y things we do every day.

The fact that lots of people don't think about that sort of thing, much the same way that a lot of people don't think very hard about the historical context in which they swim, makes me think the alt-history/alt-physics comparison is still worth considering.

Adam Roberts said...

I think what I mean is that people are able (empirically) simply to ignore science, to live their lives without it -- again, I don't mean technology: I mean the billions all around the world who believe in Creationism, or astrology, or the mystic noodly tentacle of the great Spaghetti Monster, and yet who still otherwise function perfectly well. I don't think history works like that; which is to say, if you live in Hong Kong, or Tel Aviv, or the Southern States of the USA then 'history' is a shaping, unignorable aspect of your existence.

I agree with you it's shocking; deplorable, even.

Gregory said...

This is the best discussion I've yet seen of CLOCKWORK ROCKET; bravo. Especially liked the Adam Roberts comments and your replies.
Of course it helps to have a PhD in physics to read it, so is a highly refined taste.
Gregory Benford

Adam Roberts said...

Thank you, Greg.

Adam Roberts said...

A final PS to this post: to draw your attention to Tricia Sullivan's review of this novel, which will appear in Vector. Via twitter, in what was no-doubt kindly intended but nonetheless most withering comment I think I've ever received, she responded to my review with: "Goodness me, you got quite excited there! Skimmed it." I can't argue with that: doubtless I do get too worked up about these things. At any rate, I'm finding it harder and harder to justify trespassing upon peoples' time with many thousands of words of overheated critical prose.