Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) When seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal finds himself lost in space, separated from his family, he expects his next drift into cold sleep to be his last. After all, the planet he’s orbiting is frozen and sunless, and the cities are dead. But when Toby wakes again, he’s surprised to discover a thriving planet, a strange and prosperous galaxy, and something stranger still—that he’s been asleep for 14,000 years.
Welcome to the Lockstep Empire, where civilization is kept alive by careful hibernation. Here cold sleeps can last decades and waking moments mere weeks. Its citizens survive for millennia, traveling asleep on long voyages between worlds. Not only is Lockstep the new center of the galaxy, but Toby is shocked to learn that the Empire is still ruled by its founding family: his own.
Toby’s brother Peter has become a terrible tyrant. Suspicious of the return of his long-lost brother, whose rightful inheritance also controls the lockstep hibernation cycles, Peter sees Toby as a threat to his regime. Now, with the help of a lockstep girl named Corva, Toby must survive the forces of this new Empire, outwit his siblings, and save human civilization.
Karl Schroeder’s Lockstep is a grand innovation in hard SF space opera.
Thoughts: Lockstep is a novel that’s hard to describe and thus hard to review. It ranges between exploring some incredible ideas and then drops back to characters revealing deep truths that readers had little to no way to see coming, to being rather blatant with moral messages (though not much time was spent moralizing, and most of that was to explain millenia-past events that set up the far-future universe that the book takes place in). But for its uneven pacing and revelations, I can’t deny that it’s a good novel that’s worth taking a look at.
The story centres around Toby, who, due to a mishap on a fairly routine voyage, ended up in stasis for far longer than intended, and wakes up to find out that not only have 14,000 years passed since he originally went missing, but that an entire civilization has sprung up around him, with him as a central figure in their mythology and religion. Toby is now living in the time of his own myths, and those he makes contact with who learn who he is have to learn to separate the myths from the man as they help him navigate through a drastically different world and time than he’s used to, while dodging Toby’s own family who control the lockstep empire and have no wish to see their lost younger brother bring it all down around their ears.
The very concept of lockstep worlds is fascinating. People on lockstep worlds spend most of their time in stasis, as Toby did when he slept for millenia, waking for short periods of time. As they sleep, robots gather resources and keep things running on a minimal level, and when they wake, people have abundant resources with which to improve their lives. Different worlds run on different schedules, some synching their waking periods with others. This makes interstellar travel much more attainable, since people can spend decades in stasis going from one world to the next, and wake up to find that little to no waking time has passed on either of their respective planets. While 14,000 years have passed in real-time, only about 40 years have passed for the people on worlds where they sleep for 30 years and wake for a month, thus making Toby’s siblings still alive when he is revived from his own sleep. It’s an amazing concept to explore the logistics of, and Schroeder seems to have done so without any logical holes to muck up the works.
What Lockstep works out to be is an exploration of man-made-myth, in both senses of that phrase: a man made into a myth, and the myths than humans make. While it’s hard sci-fi in many ways, for me the true potential shines in the anthropological and sociological elements of the story. Looking at the way myths manipulate people, the traps we fall into as a consequence, and what it all means for the societies that live by them. Lockstep is a novel that can work for people on multiple levels, depending on area of interest.
But as I said earlier, it does have its flaws. Especially toward the end, as Toby comes into greater contact with his family. In conversations, he reveals the motives behind the actions of his brother and sister flawlessly, and honestly, unless you’re sitting and overanalyzing every page, these revelations seem to come out of nowhere, and there was almost no sign of the deeper motivations. Things seem to be one way on the surface, and to all evidence, and then Toby comes along and say, “Ah, but actually that’s just misdirection and it’s all set up this way specifically to make me do the opposite of what you all think I was going to do when I woke up!” Toby seems to straddle the line of normal-but-confused teen and outright ridiculous savant at these times, showing depth and understanding he rarely demonstrates in other scenes, and it comes across as a subtle sort of info-dump, where the author wants the reader to know the finer details but couldn’t find another way to insert them into the story without making the book at least twice as long.
Still, it was an enjoyable read, and I loved the way it made me sit and think about the broader possibilities of the lockstep empire and what it meant for people. Definitely a book to keep on the shelves, and if this is a good sampling of Schroeder’s creativity, I think I need to check out more of what he’s written. Lockstep is full of the kind of meticulous detail and world-building that makes for an enduring story, and a fascinating look at our own far-future.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)