by Karl Schroeder

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Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 2014
ISBN: 0-7653-3726-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 351

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Toby McGonigal's family fled an Earth dominated by trillionaires and vicious class conflict, and attempt, instead, a very risky and precarious settlement on a trans-Neptunian object. It's the last unclaimed but marginally habitable space left in the solar system, and securing their claim requires constant bureaucratic hoop-jumping. That's what sent Toby on a solo mission to a distant moon of their home to claim it and solidify their title. But, while in cold sleep, his craft hits a small chunk of rock, and he wakes up near another world: cold, silent, dead... but apparently with lifeless cities. Another trip through suspended animation in a desperate attempt to conserve resources against the distant hope of rescue has him awakening in a society both utterly foreign and yet strangely familiar.

Schroeder is one of the better big idea writers in science fiction, but I found Lockstep to be a mixed bag. He does a surprisingly good job with the core conceit of the novel (more on that in a moment), even though it's a tricky one to make believable. Surrounding that, though, are a lot of less convincing bits that I kept having to not think about too hard, such as Toby crossing the path of another trans-Neptunian object after the accident (space is really, really big and really, really empty), or the implications of later revelations about the time scales involved in parts of the plot. Some parts of the world building, even if scientifically plausible, struck me as sloppy; for example, a religion plays a prominent role in the plot, but the nature of that religion was not particularly believable, nor was its interaction with the plot climax. I won't go into details about the religion, since it's a major plot point, but the short version is that religions tend to mature from the concrete to the abstract, not the other way around.

That said, the core conceit is both surprising and considerably better-defended in the book than I thought it could be. The world into which Toby awakes is the world of the locksteps: a society that uses suspended animation in a universal and coordinated way to build a functional society on the far outskirts of the solar system. Humans emerge for some short period of time, like a month, and build, trade, interact, and consume. They welcome ships traveling from other trans-Neptunian worlds and prepare for their own journeys. And then they go into suspended animation for an extended period — 15 years and 30 years are common choices — while robots slowly gather more resources and energy, and repair and replace what's consumed in the month of active life. Ships travel with passengers in suspended animation, allowing the vast distances between these cold worlds to be reached during the sleep period. And, since all members of the lockstep sleep and wake on the same schedule, there is no wrenching desynchronization with the surrounding society during travel. One may spend thirty years in transit, but no time passes for anyone else in the lockstep while you're traveling either. A world can effectively trade with all other worlds within a thirty year travel radius without noticing the elapsed time.

This is a technological system that at first doesn't sound like it would work, but Schroeder does a great job defending it and chasing down implications. The lockstep civilization serves as a sort of anchor and time capsule separate from the more frantic pace of the so-called fast worlds. The trans-Neptunian lockstep worlds are remote enough and poor enough to not attract too much unwanted attention, and are thus tolerated by fast societies that may have more available resources. (Although, to be sure, automated robot defenses have to carry a lot of weight here given how helpless the locksteps are during a sleep cycle.) I'm not sure I completely bought the sociology, but it works well enough to carry the weight of the story, and I've never seen a science fiction construction that uses the common technology of suspended animation in quite this way before. Schroeder sets up some nice stabilizing tensions between resources and time, adds some believable political reasons for this fragile society to survive, and uses some of its obvious political vulnerabilities as story drivers.

The plot, unfortunately, isn't as good as the big idea, and particularly suffers at the start of the book. Toby is a teenager without much experience (Lockstep is marketed as young adult), and is immediately thrown into a strange and quickly hostile environment. This means that he spends the first half of the book reacting to a blizzard of new information, and the plot tends to revert to a tour of Schroeder's constructed world. Toby is also a bit of a cipher and a bit of an everyman, without many feelings or opinions beyond the obvious feelings that any teenage boy would go through in this situation. That makes the sense of a world tour even stronger.

This flaw does not persist through the whole book. Toby does eventually start making decisions and doing things, some of the supporting characters add additional depth, and I found the unwinding of the plot surprisingly satisfying. The nature of time in this world lets Schroeder have both epic sweep and personal connection at the same time, which lets him pull off some neat contrasts between the personal and the political. I also liked Toby's gradual piecing together of what actually happened while he was asleep, both in the construction of society as a whole and in the personal conflicts between people he knew well. Some of the ease of grand manipulation seemed dubious to me, but, in Schroeder's defense, people do develop a reverence for and stories about things that have lasted a very long time, and Schroeder's setup gives him quite a lot to work with in that department.

So, a mixed bag. The core concept is thought-provoking and up to Schroeder's usual standards. The surrounding world-building isn't as much, and I think Schroeder reaches for some too-easy explanations and still underplays just how many disruptive things can happen over the span of time that this book covers. The characterization I found weak and unsatisfying for much of the book, but it gets moderately better in the end. There's a bit too much tour, and a bit too much world exploration instead of plot, but it's a fascinating world and I still enjoyed the tour.

With stronger characters and a few fewer dubious supporting pillars in the world background, I think this would have been an excellent book. As is, it's an enjoyable novel set firmly in the big idea and deep future end of science fiction, and I'm always happy to see more stories like that. It's not the best that Schroeder has done, but I still recommend it.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-07-01

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21