Science Fiction, Time Travel
by: Karl Schroeder
I first really became aware of this book when putting together all my epic awards list. Specifically, the Locus Awards. As I copy over book blurbs, I tend to at least scan them to make sure they are formatted correctly. This one caught my eye. Add in another excellent cover by artist Chris McGrath and I had to pick it up. (Seriously, he’s a modern super star of SF cover art, and somehow the books are always as good as the art. How does he do that?) Needless to say, this was an amazing read.
When seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal finds himself lost in space, separated from his family, he expects his next drift into cold sleep to be his last. After all, the planet he’s orbiting is frozen and sunless, and the cities are dead. But when Toby wakes again, he’s surprised to discover a thriving planet, a strange and prosperous galaxy, and something stranger still—that he’s been asleep for 14,000 years. Welcome to the Lockstep Empire, where civilization is kept alive by careful hibernation. Here cold sleeps can last decades and waking moments mere weeks. Its citizens survive for millennia, traveling asleep on long voyages between worlds. Not only is Lockstep the new center of the galaxy, but Toby is shocked to learn that the Empire is still ruled by its founding family: his own. Toby’s brother Peter has become a terrible tyrant. Suspicious of the return of his long-lost brother, whose rightful inheritance also controls the lockstep hibernation cycles, Peter sees Toby as a threat to his regime. Now, with the help of a lockstep girl named Corva, Toby must survive the forces of this new Empire, outwit his siblings, and save human civilization.
I’m not a huge hard Sci-Fi fan. Space Opera (a la Star Wars or Star Trek) is more my speed, but not something I tend to go out of my way to find. While the issues that hard Sci-Fi often tackles are interesting to me conceptually, I don’t always enjoy the writing style that accompanies them. (Which is why you will more often see Dan reviewing Sci-Fi than me.) That being said, I loved Lockstep.
Here Schroeder has done something that’s not entirely common in hard Sci-Fi: he’s taken a weird science-y concept, developed that concept to a full scale world, while maintaining interesting and sympathetic characters and an entertaining storyline. Oh, and it’s readable for someone who doesn’t read a lot of hard Sci-Fi. That being said, I have taken a quick peek at some of the responses on Goodreads. Several people complained about the worldbuilding/science concept (one of my favorite parts!) as being too complicated.
So let me break this concept down for you as simply as I can: In colonizing dwarf and nomad planets far from any sun, early colonists found that many of these planets did not have enough resources that could be gathered fast enough to support a human population. Even without population growth, some of these places just don’t have a great deal to offer. So instead of packing up and going someplace else, colonists spend most of the time in cryogenic chambers, ‘wintering over’ as robots gather the resources it takes to sustain human life. On a set schedule, the humans wake up, go about their business, and on a set schedule they all climb back into their cryogenic chambers (cicada beds, as they’re called) and go back to sleep. Different colonies keep different schedules, but in order to conduct trade with another colony, they need to be on the same schedule. Colonies that are in sync are in Lockstep with each other. The book takes place on worlds that participate in the largest lockstep schedule, which sleeps for 30 years to be awake for 1 month. The ratio is 360 days asleep for every 1 day awake, so this Lockstep is called alternatively 360/1 or 360. There are other Locksteps which are awake for different ratios of time, and they may be available for trade with 360 during 360’s one month awake… or not. Obviously, merchants are going to keep track of these time tables but you the reader don’t have to. You don’t need to do the math, just know that unless Schroeder has told you that protagonist Toby is screwing with his personal sleep cycle, he’s asleep for 30 years and he’ll next be awake for 1 month. Occasionally Schroeder will lay out the math for figuring out how many communities a Lockstep colony/planet can trade with and why they choose the 360/1 timetable, but you can literally just accept that it is true and move on. No hard work needs to be done. Maybe it’s that easy for me because I’m primarily a fantasy reader. In that genre you have to just accept the system as it is so long as the author sticks to the laid out rules… which Schroeder very much does.
Now, this obviously makes for some interesting conundrums. If you’re awake and aging for 1 month out of every 30 years, you’re going to be functionally immortal. Thousands of years will pass and you’ll simply move from young adult to middle age. Outside of the Locksteps are the ‘fast’ civilizations who live in real time. So as one person passes from child to young adult to middle age, the vast majority of humanity will have experienced the rise and fall of civilizations. This leads to some interesting side effects of the Lockstep, from taking in people who are thousands of years younger than other Lockstep citizens on a regular basis to people leaving the Locksteps in order to recolonize places where fast civilizations fell apart. All in all, Schroeder gives us a well thought out and intriguing concept that’s executed really well.
Of course, that can’t be the whole of the book. Now, this is where my review gets a bit difficult. On one hand, there are points and places where Lockstep could have gone farther, sometimes a lot farther. Sometimes that’s fleshing out things that might have been interesting, sometimes that meant digging deeper into characterizations, and sometimes that meant not relying unnecessarily on the trope of hidden villains. Now, none of these not going far enough was enough to throw me out of the book or even really diminished my enjoyment of it. For me, I’m going to put that reservation of Schroeder down to the fact that Lockstep is technically a young adult book.
Granted, the only way I would know it’s a YA book is from its marketing and the fact that I found it on the Locus Recommended Reading List for Best Young Adult Novel. There’s no tell tale signs within the book itself (discounting the fact that Toby is sixteen when the novel opens). No awkward love triangles, no rebelling against the man, and even a surprising lack of teenaged angst. However, Lockstep remains accessible to a youth audience while also being palatable by an adult audience, which puts it in a rare field of hard science fiction books. While fantasy and even horror have a plethora of books that straddle the line between young adult and adult, hard sci-fi doesn’t. So I was happy to stumble across one, and I’m willing to overlook some of its ‘weaknesses’ because those traits allow Lockstep to be what it is: the book you read when the young adult section is getting a little too simplistic, but the adult section may still be a little too deep.
Overall, I found a lot to enjoy in this book, and I do recommend reading it whatever your age or reading ability. The worldbuilding is stunning, Schroeder is a master at handing out information without giving you pages of info dump, and he’s peopled his world with interesting characters who are neither good nor evil, but just people. All you have to do is give it a chance to win you over without expectations.