Lockstep by Karl Schroeder (book review).

The lockstep is the weirdest concept I have ever come across. By hibernating, the population of a far flung colony can exist on almost nothing but the power required for the deep sleep modules. While they slumber, bots tend the day to day activities, harvesting and harbouring resources to sustain the colony when it wakes, and to fuel a journey across the stars to another colony for the purpose of trade. If they sleep on the ship, they can awaken at that other colony, having travelled multiple light-years ‘overnight’. If that other colony hibernated at the same time they did, then they, too, would have years of harvested materials to trade and the resources for their own journey elsewhere. Sleeping planets in a wide network become linked by a schedule of hibernation that allows trade and faster travel. But what happens to all the years falling away in between?


That was the question that poked me throughout ‘Lockstep’. Karl Schroeder expends quite a bit of effort toward explaining the theory and the math and I sort of got it. I understood the concept enough to take it as given, so I could get on with reading the story. But a sense of urgency gripped me as years floated away between periods of hibernation. On many of the planets, folks ‘wintered-over’ or hibernated for thirty years at a stretch. They’d wake for a month, burn through their gathered resources and then go to sleep again. Even though I understood it, it felt like just another night to them, I could not get over the wasted time, the years that went by unchecked. I missed them on their behalf.

When years hit the ratio of fourteen thousand real-time to forty actually lived, I had to cast myself adrift from the loss. It was too impossible to contemplate.

‘But what is the book about?’ I hear you ask. Well, it’s about a boy who is lost to time. Toby McGonigal set out to claim a moon. Once he put a metaphorical stamp on the rock, his family of intra-galactic homesteaders would have successfully mapped the portion of space surrounding the planet Sedna and could rightfully call it all theirs. An accident tosses him off course and out of time. He wakes over a dark planet, figures out he is lost and decides to hibernate again, for the last time. He is surprised to wake up again and even more surprised to find that fourteen thousand years have passed. Then he learns about the lockstep and the lockstep worlds. Hint: Toby grasped the concept more easily than I did. I think he felt the passage of years as keenly, however.

Toby is not simply a boy out of time, however. He soon discovers he has a legacy, one that has had thousands of years to germinate. He is a legend awakened, the emperor of time. Who seeded the myths? His grieving family. Their search for him and the wait for his return, started the trend of hibernation, creating the lockstep. Toby is the heir to that and all it entails. But not all of his family are happy to see him. In fact, they seem bent on his destruction. Why? Answering that question would be giving up the plot of the book.

Lockstep’ is pretty unique, as far as far future Science Fiction goes. The concept is really out there. The world-building matches the insane passage of time, though. Periods of enforced hibernation mean people can live in really bizarre circumstances on worlds perhaps only Karl Schroeder can dream about. I enjoyed learning about these different worlds, from concept to creation, and how different life could be in space. The genetic advancements were fascinating. The denners, cat-like creatures that served as an alternate hibernation system, were really cute. I want one. Of course, if I woke up tomorrow to find thirty years had passed, I might want my money back.

As expected, the inhabitants of these worlds have some strange ideas. Here’s where having a boy out of time as the narrator really works. The reader experiences these differences with Toby, which allows the author to insert small chunks of exposition that might otherwise feel heavy. Schroeder doesn’t dump all over the page, though. The explanations are in small, digestible portions that integrate seamlessly with the story.

Toby is an interesting mix of boy and man. He’s believably smart and reasonably sympathetic. At seventeen, his thoughts often felt immature. His lapses in judgment are easily forgiven; he’s lost a near unfathomable amount of time and forty years with his family. The universe is full of strangers living strange lives. Of his new friends, I think I liked Shylif the most. His story really bridged the gap between ‘fast worlds’ and the ‘lockstep’ worlds, fast worlds being those that exist fully in real time without hibernating.

I’ve read Karl Schroeder before, and have admired his imagination before. I love that for every twenty authors out there writing the regular space opera, which I need regular doses of, there is another guy dreaming up the impossible. If he writes another time-bending novel, I’ll check my anxiety at the front cover and leap right in.

Kelly Jensen

March 2014

(pub: TOR. 352 page hardback. Price: $20.24 (US), £16.21 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-76533-726-9)

check out websites:  http://us.macmillan.com/tor.aspx and www.kschroeder.com/

Kelly Jensen

Writer of love stories. Bibliophile. Gamer. Cat herder.

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