Paul Di Filippo reviews Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder’s enthralling and joyously adventuresome new novel, Lockstep, raises a couple of interesting topics ancillary to its virtues as a smashing work of storytelling, so maybe we should mention those briefly first.

The most obvious matter is the book’s marketing category—should one be so obtuse as to feel the need to categorize it. Because the book features a teen-aged protagonist, the immediate kneejerk reaction is to dub it YA. But the publisher’s promotional material resists that label, and I think we should too. It’s unnecessarily reductionist. This is a book for all ages to relish.

Nevertheless, having said that, I find Schroeder modifying his usual sophisticated style, quite deliberately, I think. Sentences are less multiplex than in his past work; concepts are introduced with less detective-work-required opacity; and there is a trifle more deft infodumping. In other words, the necessity for employing some of the more advanced reading protocols us SF vets traditionally employ has been minimized. It’s a strategy to welcome newcomers that you can also see in recent similar work by Paul Melko and Steven Gould.

Secondly, this novel raises the issues of classicism versus novelty and au courant-ness in the genre. As we shall see, this book is essentially a kissing cousin to Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings series, to Neil R. Jones’s Professor Jameson tales; and to Heinlein’s juveniles. And yet it presents itself rightly as utterly 2014, not a pastiche but an authentic creation using up-to-date speculative techniques and sources. What remains eternal, putting the book in a certain lineage outlined above, and what Schroeder capitalizes on, is the shared emotional underpinnings of the classics. We don’t want our new SF to blindly replicate the dead furniture of the past, but rather to deliver the same classic sense of wonder in new clothing. Mission accomplished here!

Our hero is seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal. He lives in an exciting era. Much of the Solar System is colonized and commercially exploited. Toby is alone in a small spacecraft heading to Sedna, that eerie trans-Neptunian planetoid which happens to be owned by his family. Everyone in the McGonigal clan has to pull their weight in the business, including Toby’s brother Peter and sister Evayne. It’s a living.

But this familiar milieu is already vanished when he wakes up in a defective “cicada” hibernation chamber, with his crippled ship in orbit around a seemingly dead world. Unable to land or fly away, Toby retreats back to the repaired chamber and goes to sleep, hoping for some miracle. He reawakens planetside, in a soft bed, having been rescued. And here’s what he learns.

Fourteen thousand years have passed during that first sleep, and another twenty thereafter. Humanity now occupies seventy thousand planets, mostly “steel beach” type harsh worlds roaming through interstellar space. Sublight travel is still the rule, so how does a galactic empire maintain consistency across the light years and millennia? Easy! They exist in “lockstep,” with groupings of the societies operating at different “frequencies” of hibernation and activity synced to each other. So your years-long journey through space occurs while both your home and your target are sleeping, and you arrive to find, in essence, things unchanged by the passage of transit time. It’s an elaborate, precarious, jury-rigged system that relies on the cicada technology, giving the proprietors of that tech a dominant role.

After some deliberate obfuscation and treachery, Toby is forced to escape his not-so-benevolent rescuers and seek refuge among a stratum of society that flouts the laws and conventions of lockstep. Theses outsiders circumvent cicada tech with the help of animal symbionts called denners, and Toby adopts one too, christened Orpheus. (Here we get some delightful moments courtesy of vintage Andre Norton.) Among these outlaws is a young woman named Corva from the planet Thisbe, whose lifeline will entangle with Toby’s. She soon informs Toby of the uncanny state of reality: the top dogs of Lockstep are the McGonigle family, specifically his brother Peter and sister Evie, now tyrants. Oddest of all is that Toby is represented throughout the galaxy as a legendary lost godlike figure known as the Emperor of Time, with the reputation of a messiah to come!

The rest of the book finds Toby and allies harried from one strange venue to another (and given Schroeder’s track record, you can bet these are ingenious), dipping in and out of hibernation, seeking at first just to stay alive, and then to overthrow Lockstep entirely, without destroying civilization in the process.

Schroeder has great fun riffing off a potent handful of classic SF works, besides the ones I mentioned earlier. The sibling dynamics are reminiscent most startlingly of Ender’s Game, with suitable twists. But it also dawned on me that we had echoes of Dune, with Toby’s savior status akin to that of Muad’dib (and ripples of Dune‘s brother-sister dynamic as well). We also pay homage to Philip Jose Farmer’s Dayworld trilogy, and Vernor Vinge’s conceit of a galaxy with various strata of techno possibilities. While the Lockstep worlds value continuity above all, this is not true in the “fastworlds”—a milieu not explored here, but possibly, I hope, in any sequels that Schroeder’s closure-rich ending still hints at.

“All he could really sort out was that humanity and its many subspecies, creations and offspring had experienced many rises and falls over the aeons. Since they had the technology, and lots of motivations, people kept reengineering their own bodies and minds. They gave rise to godlike AIs, and these grew bored and left the galaxy, or died, or turned into uncommunicative lumps, or ran berserk in any of a hundred different ways. On many worlds humans wiped themselves out, or were wiped out by their creations…The only reason there were humans at all, these days, was that there were locksteps. They served as literal freezers, preserving ancient human DNA and cultures.”

And in fact for tyrants Peter and Evie, only forty years have passed out of the 14,000 since Toby vanished.

And then, within all this gosh-wow fun, Schroeder inserts a detailed subtext on economics. He’s concerned with income inequality, arcane trade arrangements between locksteps, theft and conquests of sleeping cities. In fact, this book should probably be read in parallel with Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood, of which Stross himself has said: “ Neptune’s Brood was an abstract exploration of just how one might build a financial infrastructure to support interstellar colonization at slower-than-light speeds, and what can go wrong with it; at the same time, Neptune’s Brood also asked whether we own money, or money owns us.” Both these books prove that far from being the “dismal science,” economics can provide fascinating grounds for speculations.

Schroeder’s new book finds him moving in fresh directions of style and content without sacrificing or denying any of his past achievements. Let’s hope he continues for another few millennia.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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