Astonishingly, in the last few weeks, I’ve actually found time to read some– gasp— novels. In particular, I finished two books that probably belong in the “Hard SF” genre: A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias and Lockstep by Karl Schroeder. Both Jim and Karl are people I’ve met many times at cons; I’ve enjoyed a lot of books by Karl, but this is Jim’s first published novel (I think).
I’m lumping these together both because it’s rare for me to get time to read, let along booklog stuff, but also because there’s a sense in which they’re complementary books: Both offer thoroughly fascinating far-future settings by exploring neat ideas on one are of science, but glossing over some others.
A Darkling Sea is set on Ilmatar, a Europa-like world a long way from Earth, on a human research station dedicated to studying the native life at the bottom of an ocean which is itself under a kilometer or so of ice. The crab-like native creatures have highly developed sonar senses, and survive by farming organisms that strain sulfur-based nutrients out of warmer water venting from the planet’s interior. They have a rich and fascinating culture, operating at a sort of pre-Victorian level, and the Ilmataran side of the plot centers on some proto-scientists. On the human side, the plot follows the scientists in the research station, and the fallout when a grandstanding human reporter is killed in an encouter with Ilmatarans, triggering a response from a third race, the Sholen, who have taken it upon themselves to enforce a sort of Prime Directive for everyone. The Sholen have their own interesting biology and culture, though less developed than the Ilmataran.
Lockstep, on the other hand, takes place in an entirely human-derived future, when Toby McGonigal wakes up from cryogenic hibernation to discover that 14,000 years have elapsed since he headed out on a routine mission to explore a comet. He’s revived in the Lockstep culture, where vast networks of interstellar trade are made possible by the practice of “wintering over”: every colony participating in the 360/1 lockstep will spend thirty years in hibernation for every month that they spend awake; this allows travel between worlds to seem like a mere overnight jaunt: travelers go to sleep, travel at sub-light speed to their destination, and wake up for a month or so at the other end, then return to find the folks they left behind still in synch with them. It’s a nifty idea, and the lockstep culture is worked out in some detail (including its role relative to the non-lockstep cultures of the “fast worlds” of the inner Solar System and other stars).
In both cases, the real attraction is the Big Idea behind the setting: the Ilmataran ecosystem and the lockstep culture. Other details are kind of fuzzy– there’s some sort of FTL travel in A Darkling Sea, but all that’s really mentioned about it is that it’s really expensive; and the perfect cryogenic hibernation technology of the locksteps is pure handwavium. But both of those core ideas are worked through in a thorough and thoughtful way, making them a pleasure to read about.
Both books also feature action-movie plots– the human researchers on Ilmatar launch a campaign of resistance against the Sholen, and Toby turns out to be the key to a bunch of family politics in the lockstep, which soon has him on the run not knowing who to trust. And in keeping with the notion that science fiction is always really about the era in which it’s written, both books include a good deal of political subtext that isn’t all that “sub.” Lockstep is probably the more polished of the two, as far as the plot goes, but that’s not really the point of either book. These are both squarely in the Asimov/Clarke/Clement/Niven sort of tradition, where the plot is mostly an excuse to explore a really cool world. And the worlds here are, indeed, really cool.
So, you know, if that’s the kind of thing you like, I’m fairly confident you’ll like these. I don’t always go for that sort of thing myself, but I enjoyed both of these.