Home > Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 74: Lockstep

Science Fiction Round 74: Lockstep


Some science fiction is harder than the rest.  Lockstep is one of the relatively few “big-scale” space-opera novels I’ve read that actually handles a no-faster-than-light reality relatively well.  It has a few plot holes, and I’ve got some quibbles about the setup, but it’s worth a read.

Also, the Goodreads ratings are… kind of funny, in that there are complaints about the story being too hard sci-fi, or too complex, too hard to easily understand.  I guess if you’re not into complex worldbuilding blended with some science-y stuff, this might not be a good book for you.

As ever… this review contains some spoilers.

The two people in this image are probably intended to be our two main protagonists, Toby and Corvana.

Staying Synchronized

The sub-light Lockstep civilization hinges in the principle of the human popsicle.  For thirty years, everybody snoozes — whether on a rock, or in space.  That allows people traveling the long distances between stars or free-floating dwarf planets to avoid getting left behind by their long period of hibernation.  As a bonus, it also gives the civilization’s planet-bound robots time to slowly collect resources in difficult conditions.  Everyone stays synchronized this way, with only a few decades of being awake spread over a period of 14,000 years in real time.

There are exceptions, of course — lots of people live in the fast, direct time with no hibernation.  They come in and out of the Lockstep with greater or lesser degrees of cultural shock, but the Lockstep maintains a degree of continuity and stability relative to the rapid changes of the rest of humanity.

This is a pretty amazing concept, which handles the sub-light lag problem well.  The story explores a number of variations and shifts, from lockstep civilizations on different cadences to the fact that archeology can now be done on Mars, to implications for politics and war.

The main catch is that hibernation tech is… difficult.  If freeze-thaw cycles can damage your food, think about what that would do to a human body.  Fortunately, the tech needed to do this without killing people isn’t described in excessive detail, but it is implied to be extensive — requiring physical modifications of humans, from adding antifreeze to new artificial organs to magical nanobot mitochondria that can operate at low temperatures.  I’m not sure I buy it, but at least the story makes the point that you can’t just walk into a freezer and expect to walk out again just fine.

It’s Not That Cold

It’s not.

There are several mentions of Sedna, specifically, as being near absolute zero, or around 3 K in temperature.  Sure, the story sounds like it starts a couple hundred years in our future already, and Sedna is near perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) now… and actually moving closer to perihelion at the present time.

It should be near its hottest!  Which is still pretty cold, but it’s not going to be 3 K, which is roughly as cold as anything in deep space can get, thanks to the cosmic microwave background left over from the Big Bang.  At its coldest, it may get down to 12 K; but right now, near perihelion, it may actually be warmer than 35 K.  Which is a lot warmer than the Sedna colonists said it was.

To put that in context, 35 K is about -238˚C, or -397˚F.  There’s no need to exaggerate — that’s still fricking cold.

Your Ending Was Too Happy

Honestly, the thing that bothered me the most about this book wasn’t the liberties taken with cyronics, or the minor errors in planetary science.

It was how the people wrapped up the story at the end.

Somehow, Toby ends up reconciled with his brother and sister, who have been acting as the tyrannical owners of the megacorp that controls the hibernation tech, and thereby, running an empire.  Toby’s siblings have been trying to kill him since he woke up, and even waged a planetary war in an effort to capture him!  And they’ve done this before, with people who were pretending to be Toby.  How many thousands (or millions?) of people have died because they wanted to keep their hold on power?

That reconciliation — along with the siblings being forced into behaving more kindly — seems to have happened all too easily.

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  1. 2017/09/17 at 9:52 am

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