The first book in this remarkable series, The Clockwork Rocket blew me away – read my review of it here. If you have just stumbled across this book without knowing anything about the series or the author – Egan is a physicist and has extensively used his knowledge to produce a universe that works different. As he explains on his website – along with a series of diagrams – this fictional world he’s invented where light travels at differing speeds is due to changing a minus sign to a plus sign in a mathematical formula that governs the geometry of space-time. He calls this a Riemannian universe as opposed to the Lorentzian version we inhabit. In Egan’s world, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity simply doesn’t make sense.
The eye-bulging inventiveness doesn’t end there. Egan also peoples his world with beings who are able to extrude limbs at will and use their own bodies to draw sketches and diagrams. Their biology is markedly different from ours…
In an alien universe, the generation ship Peerless has set out to discover the technology needed to save its home world from annihilation. But the Peerless is facing urgent problems of its own. It does not carry enough fuel to return home, so without a new form of propulsion the explorers will remain stranded in space. Which wouldn’t be such a big issue – but a population explosion has stretched life support to its limits, and the biology of the travellers offers only the harshest way to prevent growth: subjecting the women to famine in a drastic attempt to limit the number of children they bear.
So, does this second book in this intriguing series continue to engross and impress? Firstly, my firm advice is that if you do encounter The Eternal Flame and you haven’t yet read The Clockwork Rocket – do hunt down this first book and read it first. I know – I regularly offer up this suggestion on the grounds that you will get far more out of the world and writing if you thoroughly know the backstory. But in this case, I think it could be crucial. Egan doesn’t make any allowances at all for new readers – and because he immediately plunges us into the current crisis on the Peerless, I do think those – particularly those without a scientific background – who haven’t read his book or visited his website could struggle to work out what exactly is going on…
Once more, the plight of these interesting aliens and their unusual biology gripped me – but Egan is even more ambitious during this slice of the story. In The Clockwork Rocket we largely follow the fortunes of Yalda – in this book we have three main protagonists. Tamara, a female astronomer who discovers the Object and is in charge of the vital mission to explore it; Carlo, a biologist struggling to overcome the difficulties caused by their species’ breeding cycle; and Carla, whose discoveries about the nature of light challenges her basic belief in how their physical world works… Having three main story strands that come to a successful, satisfying conclusion in a book with a familiar setting is a big enough ask – but when the world and its beings are so removed from anything we normally experience, this is placing a very big demand on the author. Has he pulled it off?
I’ll be honest – the story strand about Carla and her experiments into the nature of light within Egan’s Riemannian universe mostly slid past me as I am not a mathematician or scientist by training. However, that was largely because late at night I wasn’t feeling like pummelling my tired brain into coping with the various diagrams and detailed discussions about the nature of light. I’ll freely accept that just because the level of the story is set above my ability to easily absorb the information doesn’t mean there’s an innate problem with the book. Scientists are also entitled to fiction they can get immersed in.
However I did feel that the storylines that engaged me, particularly Carlo’s investigations into their breeding biology, merited more attention in bringing that particular strand to some kind of satisfactory conclusion. While I am aware there is a third book – indeed, I’ve already bought it – leaving the plotpoint dangling to the extent that it waves in the wind was frustrating. I also missed the complexity and charisma of Yalda and in this story no one adequately took her place as the main protagonist I really cared about.
Despite these grizzles, this is definitely worth a read. It is a joy to find a book that genuinely attempts to create a different world inhabited by extraordinary beings with problems we simply don’t experience and if you are a hard science fiction fan who has not yet encountered this outstanding series, go and search for it. There really isn’t anything else like it.