Review: The Clockwork Rocket

“They had managed to leave the prison for a while, but nothing was easy, even in freedom.”

Greg Egan

The Clockwork RocketThis book should not have worked.

* * *

  • It did. It totally did.
  • * * *

The Clockwork Rocket is in many ways a tale of two parts. On the one hand, we have the story of Yalda, a girl born into a misogynist society, a member of a race whose women’s lives end in childbirth, as they give up their minds and split into four to give life to a new generation. Women in this world are always in danger, if not from their own co-steads (most often their twin brothers, with whom they’re expected to reproduce – this is an alien race, before you get too squicked out) who demand and expect their women to sacrifice themselves for children, then from the urban phenomenon of spontaneous reproduction, when their bodies split into four even without a man.

But Yalda wants more than reproduction and an early death. Encouraged by her father when she shows signs of an interest in learning, she finds her way to the city of Zeugma, to the university there, and joins a clique of similar women, dedicated to their careers, all taking the illegal drug holin to prevent spontaneous childbirth. So Egan’s novel is in part a narrative of freedom, a story about claiming a room of one’s own out of the teeth of those who would deny it.

* * *

On the other hand – and this may surprise you – The Clockwork Rocket is a story about physics. The physics of Egan’s world is very different to that of ours. Please don’t ask me how, because I understood about one word in ten during the physics bits, but I’m told it’s all very clever. The point, from my perspective, is that Yalda and her fellow feminists must use physics to save their world from destruction. Which is, you know, awesome.

It’s awesome because these are women doing physics. They are women, switched-on, feminist, activist, thinking, feeling women taking part in the hardest of hard SF. (This book has diagrams, Constant Reader. You don’t get much harder than that.) They are doing what they have rarely been allowed to do, not only in their own world, but in our world too: this kind of SF almost always features male characters lecturing each other, or lecturing lowly women, or at best one solitary brilliant woman who is Exceptional because all other women are stupid. There are just so few books featuring a community of women supporting each other, debating and improving each other’s ideas; and, moreover, that sees them overcome prejudice to do so.

I started, I know, by saying that this is a novel of two parts; but that wasn’t quite true. It certainly seems that way in the beginning, when the book seems to alternate between feminism and physics. But in truth, it seems to me that the physics feeds into the feminism, and vice versa: it is because this book is feminist that it allows its characters to do physics. And it is because of the physics that this book is feminist.

I loved it. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it made it onto my top ten books of 2015. And I’m sad that it’s finished.

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