BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Toby McGonigal, after being frozen in space for millenia, is awoken into a world where his family holds power by means of a time-spanning government.
PROS: Amazing and well-thought out world building and premise; tight, focused story keeps a large world and its facets manageable.
CONS: Some parts are almost too breezy; novel feels more like action/adventure rather than YA.
BOTTOM LINE: A wide-canvas universe ultimately defined and delineated by the compelling story of a young man far from home in time and space.
“The Sleeper Awakes” is a trope in fantasy and science fiction at least as old as Rip Van Winkle, and legends of time running out of alignment with the outside world predates that story to at least the Mabinogion. It’s a form of one-way time travel that avoids paradoxes and still allows the man-out-of-time trope to play out.
Captain William Buck Rogers goes forward 500 years into a world and solar system vastly different. In Lockstep by Karl Schroeder, young Toby McGonigal of Sedna, by comparison, has a spacecraft malfunction that puts him into sleep for fourteen thousand years. And yet, it is not as much as all that, in some ways. For Toby is awakened into a world where the Lockstep culture of the minor planets of the Oort Cloud and beyond have their denizens live only one month out of every 360, sleeping the other 359. Thus for the family he has left behind, the family that now runs this culture, it has only been 40 years. A short enough interval that his brother, his sister and mother are very much alive…and very much not expecting Toby to return from the dead.
This wide canvas and sheer inventiveness of Lockstep is the big draw for me as a reader. The Locksteps are an amazing science fictional concept, and the author explores and delves into their nature, their implications, their uses, and their weaknesses. We see how these Lockstep societies function, how they influence the thinking of their members, how they influence the universe around them. The economics of the Lockstep worlds in particular are shown to be fragile and easily dirupted by the unscrupulous — all of which brings an economic sensibility to this future society’s workings that is rarely seen in SF outside of novels by, say, Charles Stross.
The story of Lockstep, ultimately, is the story of Toby McGonigal, which is the story of the Lockstep culture. We learn as Toby learns the meaning and the true origin and nature of the culture. He provides a lens, a focus to understand the vast world around him. I hesitate to tread into spoiler country, but Toby’s awakening has enormous effects on the Locksteps and those around him. In many ways, he is the eye of a storm, and seeing that storm from that perspective was one thing that kept pulling me through the novel.
It’s no mean trick Schroeder manages here, to have a culture leapfrogging through time, managing it even as a wider universe flares and explodes into civilizations rising and falling again and again. Wide swaths of time and civilizations are mentioned with almost frustrating brevity in a way reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon. And yet, the devil is in the details. By focusing on Toby’s story, the author makes the vast gulfs of time manageable, making them a story rather than a gigantic braided timeline of the rise and fall of human polities and civilizations. We get glimpses of what they are, what they were, and what they are in and around the Locksteps, but it doesn’t overwhelm the novel’s plot. In the space in between society’s wakefulness, in that 14000 years of their history, Schroeder could write novels for the remainder of his career if he wanted. (Schroeder has already written a story, “Jubilee“, set in this world.) This is a rich universe that I hope, even with Toby’s story complete, we see again.
Schroeder is known for both his incredibly imaginative post-human futures (Lady of Mazes) and his action/adventure novels (his Virga sequence). In Lockstep, he successfully fuses both of those aspects together into one enjoyable package for the YA market.