Review: Schild’s Ladder, by Greg Egan

schilds_ladder

(Gollancz, 978-0-575-08111-6)

(Review first published in ASIM 32, Feb/March 2008)

Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder is one of the eight recent SF titles grouped into Gollancz’s ‘Future Classics’ series. The series is marked by distinctive, enigmatic, sometimes gimmicky front covers. Schild’s Ladder’s gimmick is a glow-in-the-dark starscape: eye-catching, but a little puzzling. Designed to stand out in a bookshop blackout, perhaps?

Greg Egan is an Australian SF writer, and Ladder was first published in 2002. I’ve not previously read any of his works.

In Ladder, Cass has travelled to the Mimosa system to run a series of daring physics experiments, hoping to create, very temporarily, a new type of physics by inducing an unstable vacuum state according to the precepts of quantum graph theory. She’s chosen Mimosa because it’s home to an apparatus known as the Quietener, a kind of Galactic ‘clean room’ in which the Universe’s quantum noise has been filtered out, as much as possible. It’s the ideal environment for her experiments, but will they work?

Cass succeeds, but there’s a problem. The new vacuum state she creates, with fundamentally different physical laws, lacks the expected instability. Mimosa becomes the epicentre of a spherical catastrophe, a world-swallowing phenomenon which is expanding at half the speed of light. System after system is lost as the spherical novo-vacuum commences to swallow the Galaxy.

Six hundred years after the Mimosa incident, and the sphere is still growing, unchecked and at the same rate. Tchicaya, a researcher keen to solve the riddle of the sphere’s nature, and to find a way to deal with its expansion, arrives on board the Rindler, a research vessel which has for some time been pacing the enigmatic object’s apparently-featureless border region, while the researchers on board debate how, and whether, to destroy the object.

I found Ladder a slow story to warm to. Egan’s vision is uncompromising, his worldbuilding extreme. His universe in Ladder comes across, initially, as a very clinical environment, populated by ideologues and people without common humanity. For these far-future humans, every aspect of identity seems almost magically mutable: gender, corporeality, metabolic rate, body size (when we first meet Cass, she is approximately two millimetres tall; in her next incarnation she is vastly smaller again). Death is treated as a minor, temporary inconvenience; life is generally retrievable with a modicum of personal housekeeping.

I formed an opinion, early on, that Ladder was a book dominated by The Idea, against which the protagonists were merely vehicles for an exploration of a plethora of giddying concepts in extreme physics. And yet this perspective is incorrect: if few of his characters are presentable as people with whom the reader can closely identify, they are nonetheless solidly drawn, consistent, quirky, and plausible denizens of the strange place that is Egan’s far-future Galaxy. Ladder is certainly concerned with a great deal of abstruse physical speculation, but it isn’t completely dominated by this; it’s also a tale which, in considerable detail, explores the dilemmas, the relationships, the persistence of philosophy and conflict, and the still-human frailties of those whose fate is tied up with the novo-vacuum as it snowploughs its way through interstellar space. It helps that Egan writes with a genuine desire to communicate, as plainly and honestly as possible, the advanced hard-SF concepts that fuel the novel: Egan has a knack for metaphor and simile which, without condescension and with occasional unassuming humour, allows us to grasp the detail of his far-future vision. Ultimately, Ladder’s avowedly exotic settings and characters work in its favour, to provide an immersive and rewarding story.

It’s somewhat challenging and not, I suspect, to everyone’s taste: but if Schild’s Ladder is representative of Egan’s style, then his reputation as a writer of hard-SF is well-justified. If the hard-SF label isn’t inclined to deter you, I can recommend Ladder as a good dose of mind-expanding prose. In fact, it’s the nearest thing I’ve found, in thirty-odd years of SF reading, to a lucid, coherent textual equivalent of the surreal visual passage towards the end of the movie version of 2001. If that comparison sounds intriguing, rather than merely off-putting, then I think you might just enjoy Schild’s Ladder.

(reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2008)

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