Toby is the seventeen-year-old scion of the McGonigal family, which is in the process of colonizing Sedna, one of the countless unclaimed orphan planets that can be found in interstellar space, far beyond Pluto but light years away from the next-nearest star. To secure ownership of the planet, the McGonigals must also claim every single one of its moons, so when a distant satellite of the planet is discovered, Toby is dispatched to go claim it for the family. But then something goes horribly wrong…
When Toby wakes up from coldsleep, he makes a number of startling discoveries. For one, his ship has been drifting through space for 14,000 years. In that time, humanity has spread out across the mostly lifeless universe, populating 70,000 or so planets that are now collectively known as the “Lockstep Empire.” And, somehow, his own family is at the center of all of this: his brother Peter is the tyrant-like figure known as the Chairman.
So begins Lockstep, the newest standalone science fiction novel by Canadian author Karl Schroeder.
Central to the novel, and for my money one of the most interesting ideas to pop up in SF recently, is the “lockstep” concept. It’s a bit tricky to explain in a paragraph or two (the novel spends a considerable amount of time going over it), but in essence it involves using cryogenic sleep to “slow down” time. You see, the inhabitants of the Lockstep empire spend only one month out of every thirty years awake.
During the downtime, when the empire collectively shuts down, resources are collected and the vast distances between stars can be crossed in the virtual blink of an eye. Because the entire empire follows the same schedule, you wake up after almost three decades of frozen travel right when your destination planet is emerging from hibernation too. This way, the entire civilization skips forward in time collectively, bridging distances and collecting resources in ways that would be impossible in realtime.
Sound bizarre? Sure, but it’s also one of the most oddly plausible ways to get around creating an interstellar empire without resorting to faster-than-light travel or hyperspace or other hand-wavy SF staples. The system also has a number of far-ranging implications, both positive and negative, that Schroeder explores throughout the novel.
Into this civilization drops Toby McGonigal who, Rip Van Winkle-like, has just slept through a period of huge political upheaval. Then again, poor Rip only slept for 20 years and all he missed was the American Revolution, whereas during Toby’s millennia-long slumber a huge interstellar empire has popped up and, what’s more, it’s the “cicada bed” hibernation technology pioneered by his own family that made this change possible. Toby meets up with a small group of people who live on the edges of the Lockstep empire, using cute cat-like creatures known as “denners” to work around the McGonigal monopoly on cicada beds.
The bizarre thing about this novel is that, aside from the blow-your-mind SF concept of the lockstep and the stunning time scale and scope of the story, it reads more like a YA novel than a book aimed at more mature readers. By that I don’t just mean the protagonist’s age (who is, well, 17 going on 14,000) but the direct, almost simplistic development of plot and characters.
Very little in this book, aside from the lockstep concept itself, is challenging in any way. Intellectually and emotionally, the characters feel as if they were transplanted from a simpler fictional universe. Their relationships are, for the most part, recognizable to the point of predictability. What’s worse, the vast Lockstep empire with its panoply of planets and its huge interstellar history is reduced to, well, snapshots of a few key places and events. Schroeder mentions important events and entire evolutions in passing, showing that he has created a huge SF universe for this novel, but unfortunately it never feels entirely solid.
If Lockstep had been marketed as a YA novel, this would probably never have struck my attention. When I started reading e.g. the Planesrunner books by Ian McDonald, I expected YA and was perfectly happy with the result. With Lockstep, especially based on its intriguing concept, I felt disappointed by the execution, expecting something with more depth and detail and heft. It’s a matter of setting expectations, I guess, because this would definitely be good YA.
Also, that’s not to say that the novel doesn’t occasionally manage to rise above that level. Especially towards the end Schroeder starts to impart the complexity of his setting more effectively, e.g. in an all-important meeting set on Thisbe that makes for an innovative and intellectually stimulating take on politics. (It reminded me strongly of how Hannu Ranajiemi described the evolution of privacy settings in The Quantum Thief, for one.)
Lockstep is at its best in scenes like that one, when Schroeder allows the innovative concepts bubbling under its surface to take center stage. Another example of this is the different takes on virtual and augmented reality that appear throughout the novel: goggles that place an informative overlay onto the world, small robots that take on the shapes of virtual objects, and maybe best of all, the complex empire-building game Consensus that Toby created for and with Peter before they found themselves in the very real SF empire of the Lockstep.
So. Lockstep offers 14,000 years of future history, but only described in the broadest of strokes and with disappointingly little detail. It also features an intrigue and a family drama that stretches across 14 millennia, which is pretty cool even if the main character has been asleep for most of that time. In the end, Lockstep is an enjoyable novel that will probably go down well with younger readers and with those who are in the mood for a quick, light read.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on March 25th, 2014.