First Look: The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

Check out the first installment of Giant Freakin' Bookshelf!

By David Wharton | Published

Welcome to Giant Freakin’ Bookshelf. Each month we’ll pick a new or noteworthy science fiction book and give it the once-over. At the beginning of the month we’ll present our first impressions — whether the book hooks you right away, what it does well, and what it doesn’t. At the end of the month we’ll serve up a full review to see if the book lived up to — or down to — those first 50 pages. Consider it an exercise in first expectations.

Our first selection is Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket. Take it away, Will…

I’m a sucker for crazy explanations. Whether it be a trilogy explaining what could happen if Mars were colonized, or a series hypothesizing what a journey would be like to each of the nine planets in our solar system (yes, I still consider Pluto a planet, and always will. There.), give me some crazy, imaginative notion and let loose, my friend. Let us all bask in the overabundance of your creativity and whimsy.

So when the possibility of reading and reviewing Greg Egan’s first book of the Orthogonal series came up, I took it. Sure, I had heard that The Clockwork Rocket sometimes strays into the more esoteric corners of science, and that I might need charts and a graphing calculator to follow along. But I said, “Bring it on!” I’m learning Greek and studied Hebrew, so how hard can this be? Well, I’m here to tell you, The Clockwork Rocket can indeed be a little dense. Mr. Egan likes his science.

I say “his science” because that’s exactly what it is. Much of the world the author has created is based on physics and biology as we know it, but there are also a few striking differences. For instance, light has no universal speed. In the world of biology, plants feed themselves by emitting light, and the people there can change their anatomy to some degree when and if the need arises.

We are introduced to the main character, Yalda, a farm girl who is smarter than those around her and who strives to expand her intellect. She initially meets with some resistance, but her thirst for knowledge is insatiable and she has an equally irrepressible curiosity. Eventually, Yalda is confronted with a problem that is beyond her immediate ability to solve. A series of meteors, called Hurtlers, are rocketing into her planetary system and skimming the atmosphere with alarming frequency and speed. If some way isn’t discovered to stop or redirect them, they could lead to planetary extinction for Yalda’s people.

The one thing that Yalda and her fellow scientists need more than anything is more time to come up with a solution. The solution they come up with is ingenious, and if it works, she would be able to save everyone on the planet. Not bad for a farm girl.

Will Yalda save the day? What is her ingenious plan? I don’t know, and I’m not telling, respectively. After all, I’m only on page 50. You’ve got plenty of time to catch up.