Greg Egan
Schild's Ladder (2001)
Reviewed: 2003-11-18

Let's be clear upfront: If Egan's previous books have simply weirded you out, if you found them incomprehensible, if you think posthuman protagonists are too strange for comfort, if you consider the notion of transforming the universe too grandiose, well, then Schild's Ladder is not a book for you. Having a background of college level math won't hurt either. Yes, Greg Egan is back in true form.

20,000 years in the future. The descendants of Homo sapiens have taken on various shapes. Most individuals' minds are running on quantum singleton processors. Some prefer to stay acorporeal, living in simulated scapes, others choose to stay in close touch with physical reality by inhabiting biological bodies like meat puppets. Some prefer to stay put, enjoying their unaging lives in the familiarity of a single planet, others choose to journey between the many inhabited worlds. Nearly all travel is by signal, sending a representation of one's mind to a civilized destination where a processor and, if desired, a suitable body will be provided.

Physics has its Theory of Everything: Quantum Graph Theory and the Sarumpaet rules, which have held true unsuperseded for some twenty millennia. When the scientist Cass undertakes an experiment that tests the Sarumpaet rules more rigorously than anything that has been tried before, she unexpectedly falsifies the theory in a most spectacular way by seeding the catastrophic expansion of the novo-vacuum. Spreading at half the speed of light it gobbles up the ordinary vacuum of our universe, creating an expanding sphere where the laws of nature are radically different from our own.

Some six hundred years later, the novo-vacuum has engulfed numerous inhabited planets, causing a stream of refugees and turmoil in the settled part of the galaxy. Tchicaya, an embodied traveler, joins a growing number of scientists on the spaceship Rindler, coasting in immediate vicinity of the border to the novo-vacuum. Two factions have formed: the Preservationists, who want to find a way to push back and extinguish the novo-vacuum, and the Yielders, who want to adapt to it. Tensions between the two camps keep mounting, but when the final breakthrough in their understanding of the border arrives, the implications dwarf all previous considerations and conflicts.

Schild's Ladder is another wild ride, although there is a certain predictability to it that was absent from previous books. The future is truly futuristic rather than the rehash of the present so common in SF. The extrapolation from the fictional physics is audacious. Egan builds one of the most alien worlds ever conceived. Tchicaya's personal hangups, his childhood relation to a fellow scientist with whom he shares a distressing secret, the way these events have shaped all his life, all this adds a welcome human (if you want to call it that) element to the story.


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