Schild’s Ladder, Greg Egan

Gollancz, 2001, 250 pages, £16.99 hc, ISBN 0-575-07068-4

Sometimes, there is no shame in saying that you’ve been beaten by a book.

I certainly feel like that after reading Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder. I may think of myself as a savvy hard-SF fan with a good understanding of science and a facility for technical jargon, but Egan has clearly bested me with this extrapolation of thirty-first century physics.

The central plot isn’t terribly complicated. First, the prologue describes how a far-future scientific experiment goes wrong and starts eating the very fabric of the cosmos. Schild’s Ladder then jump hundreds of years later, on a station perched at the frontier of this novo-vacuum’s continuing expansion. Aboard the station, two post-human factions: The Preservationists, trying to fight back against the expanding blight, and the Yielders, who are looking for an accommodation and a way to exploit this new set of circumstances. Stuff happens, discoveries are made, a trip is taken and soon enough, well… oh, there’s not much to spoil, but let’s still not spoil it.

If the plot is simple enough (and, to be truthful, not that different from a number of classic SF stories in which heroic scientists have to face an alien enigma) it’s the details that will make cry in confusion and beg for simpler novels. Open up a page at random, and you’re likely to read a line like “Once that was achieved, Tchicaya scribed a series of probes that would spread out laterally as well moving straight in, improving their changes of gaining a comprehensive picture of the Planck worms.” [P.187]

Uh-huh. Okay. Not bad, but imagine 250 pages of that and you’ll quickly reach for a romance novel in order to speed-read once more. Not content to play around with advanced physics, Schild’s Ladder boldly invents post-“Theory of Everything” physics that are to our understanding of the universe what super-string theory is to Newtonian physics. Ambitious, undoubtedly fascinating for the Nobel Prize crowd, but utterly baffling for even smart-ass readers such as myself.

But difficulty of comprehension doesn’t necessarily betray lack of enjoyment. Midway though the book, it struck me that even though I couldn’t understand half the jargon, I was swimming once more in the comfortable thought-space of hard-SF. Egan’s protagonists are scientists for whom the hunger of knowledge is all-powerful, and there’s a pleasant vibe to this kind of attitude that I was missing after so many hum-drum thrillers and pedestrian SF novels. What’s more, you eventually learn to tune out the most advanced sections of Egan’s prose, and simply extract whatever meaning you can from the plot-line surrounding the physics.

Interestingly enough for a writer whose short stories are usually better-rated than his longer fiction, several of Schild’s Ladder‘s best moments come in smaller portions. The opening novella isn’t bad, Protagonist Tchicaya’s shared childhood experience with Mariama is worth excerpting by itself and the final voyage is -though at the limit of intelligibility- almost worth another story. Even in the nuts-and-bolts linking scenes, Egan goes farther than anyone else, fiddling with acorporeal characters and their psychology as if it was just another thing. Never mind that other novelists (paging Richard K. Morgan) can devote entire novels to the very same throwaway ideas.

Ultimately, it’s the sense that Schild’s Ladder does things impossible to achieve in any other genre of expression but science-fiction that gives full meaning to the book. For someone to sit down and extrapolate far-future physics in sufficient details for readers to recoil in stunned incomprehension is nothing short of admirable. I have long maintained that science-fiction should first be defined by what it can do better than anything else, and this is the kind of novel, utterly cryptic to anyone not already well-versed in the genre, that best exemplifies that kind of thinking. Is it one of 2001’s best SF novels? I don’t think so. Is it one of 2001’s purest SF novels, though? Ah-ha.

It took me a while to get to this novel, and now that I have, I suddenly find myself at the end of Egan’s oeuvre so far: The already-mysterious author has almost completely stopped writing since 2001, devoting himself to the cause of Australian asylum-seekers. For hard-SF, this pause has been deeply felt; Egan continues to show signs of life (His web site is still regularly updated), but it’s an open bet as to when he’ll be back in bookstores. In the meantime, enjoy this novel as maybe the most advanced piece of diamond-hard SF he’s ever penned, and wonder if anything will ever top this. In this light, beating my head against this novel is nothing short of the ultimate compliment.

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