Every now and then I encounter a book that utterly thrills me, and Karl Schroeder's new novel Lockstep is one of them. It's about a young loner, battling an oppressive corporate regime that controls space by controlling how people experience time. And the lockstep is the key to it all.
In the far future, people have finally mastered suspended animation. Everyone who uses Cicada Corp suspended animation beds enters the Cicada Lockstep: one month awake for every 360 months asleep. That's one month for every thirty years of real time. When 40 years has passed in the 360/1 lockstep, 14,000 years has passed in real time. In all those 14,000 years, humans haven't figured out how to travel faster than the speed of light. The lockstep, by restructuring subjective time, has the remarkable benefit of shrinking the galaxy. An interstellar trip that would take 30 years of real time (or fifteen, or two) can be scheduled to occur "overnight" with no loss of subjective time.
Someone might not be willing to give up hundreds of years of subjective time, but no has problem staking a claim that takes three years to travel to. Sure you could only talk to someone 30 light years away once a month and even in 14,000 years spaceships are still only clocking in a fraction of the speed of light. But by everyone sticking to the same sleep schedule, all sorts of distances are reduced to "next door."
The lockstep creates a feasible slower-than-light corporate empire that encompasses 70,000 worlds. And plenty of them are worlds that would not be habitable without a combination of robots and lockstep. Since the population is asleep the vast majority of the time, the resources of barely habitable worlds can be accumulated and shepherded by robots for thirty years, walking a remarkable line between environmental sustainability and human usage.
While lockstep keeps turning off the lights for years at a time, the rest of the "fast worlds" in the galaxy spin on, piling up eons of history and technology. Fast worlds are terrifyingly unstable compared to the slow churn of tightly controlled locksteps. And the Cicada Corp's lockstep is the largest and most tightly controlled of them all.
Which brings us back to the story. Seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal was just doing some recon work off Sedna when things in his spaceship go terribly wrong. He wakes up 14,000 years in the future to a universe that seems vaguely familiar, but is radically different from any he has ever encountered before. The last thing he remembered, trillionaires had pushed the have-not population of the Earth into ever more desperate circumstances. His own family and a few other settlers had fled to the edge of the habitable solar system to make an attempt at colonizing Sedna. In the Cicada Corp. lockstep, people are middle class and rely on robots to do their work. Things seem good, if confusing, until Toby's rescuers threaten him.
Suddenly Toby finds himself on the run from Cicada Corp. With the help of a girl intent on rescuing her brother, some black market bio-tech, a "maker" who insists on producing all his own stuff and a man intent on vengeance, Toby has to figure out how to navigate the lockstep. And if you think it's a coincidence that Toby's been missing for 14,000 years and the Cicada Corp. lockstep is about 14,000 years old, the book will quickly disabuse you of the notion.
Lockstep is just as interested in the interfamilial as it is the interstellar. Toby's memories of his younger siblings Evayne and Peter come up against the hard truths of their older selves. How the cleaving of lockstep and real time mangles families and relationships is topic that comes up again and again in the novel. Toby's negotiation of these relationships is one of the better parts of the novel.
Unfortunately, Toby occasionally comes across as lacking an interior monologue. Schroeder has embraced the maxim 'show, don't tell' to remarkable extent. Just when I was starting to wonder if Toby liked the girl, he takes her hand. Wondering if Toby's scared of his sister? He hides his shaking hands. Both are nice moments, but it'd be nice to get a bit more of Toby's emotional processes behind his actions. The romance falls pretty flat, since we never get a clear read on Toby's feelings. We know he cares (he's worried her safety could be used to extort him), but never really get why. Not even so much as a "she's hot and it's been 14,000 years." While the lack of character interiority is most clear when it comes to romance, it comes across in other places too. Which isn't to say that Toby's one-dimensional: he has doubts and fears along with smarts and a remarkable understanding of other people's psychologies. He's got more than a hint of golden-age hero/scientist going on, instead of being entirely relatable.
In fact, the whole novel has the sheen of golden-age juvenile novels on it. There's a gee-whiz wonderment quality to the lockstep that's infectious. It's also incredibly gratifying to find such a universe when the publishing landscape is filled with blandly similar dystopias. The book is similar enough in tone to the Heinlein juveniles, I half-expected someone to pull out a slide-rule during the oft-repeated explanations of how the lockstep worked. Luckily, we're spared slide-rules in exchange for google-glass-esque technology that can hover emoticons over genetically engineered pets.
Schroeder doesn't just give readers a fantastical set-up, he also treats us to myriad fantastical worlds that Toby and his friends visit. Planets without suns lit by laser light or by turning the atmosphere into a neon lamp; planets made entirely of water with oceans thawed out every thirty years; gas planets where people live in aerostats the size of continents; real time worlds that are little more than shrines. The whole thing is utterly brilliant and charming.
Lockstep is probably being stocked in the adult section of your local bookstore, but it's a little more explain-y than an adult book needs to be. But don't let that deter you – if you're looking for a genuinely novel universe, a joyous romp or just a fun beach read, pick up Lockstep.