The continent was a collision of lanterns, or a surf of glowing pearls hanging untroubled amid Wallop’s storms. The cities’ curving sides cradled the white of towers and the green of cultivated jungles that raveled them like verdigris staining a glass ball.
Wisps of dark cloud began drifting across this vision as the airship picked up speed.(126)
In Lockstep, Hard SF shakes hands with Space Opera and YA. The tropes may be familiar, but the underlying concept proves mind-bendingly original. Schroeder has crafted a great new universe. Does the novel live up to premise and promise?
Author: Karl Schroeder
First published in March 2014
Toby McGonigal, seventeen, awakes from a space voyage gone wrong to find that 14,000 years have passed. While some versions of humanity have come and gone and transformed, the more familiar sort have spread out to colonize… the solar system and the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud and we are making our way to Alpha Centauri. His family has become the powerful rulers of the Lockstep Universe. Though he is heir to their empire and the messiah of a new religion, he doesn’t understand how the new universe works. He learns quite quickly, however, that he faces real danger.
Schroeder’s concepts of our future history and the Lockstep itself rank among the best in contemporary SF, and for that reason alone this novel deserves your attention. I’m not going to try to explain it. Suffice it to say, he has created a space opera universe in compliance with known laws of physics. He doesn’t hand-wave a cheat to c; his worlds-spanning empire (or something like it) could exist. Schroeder has completely reinvented Space Opera, and I really want to see more of this universe.
The complex backstory to this universe, the Lockstep itself and its workings, and the protagonist from another time all conspire to make significant amounts of exposition inevitable. I accept the fact. Even given the need, however, Lockstep goes above and beyond. It fairly brims over with explanations and expository dialogue, and at times explanation drags down story.
Originality: 5/6 Although Lockstep uses a great many familiar tropes (chosen one, familiar animal companion, Space Opera intrigue), Schroeder has transformed them by setting them in a world where no one can exceed the speed of light. More significantly, the Lockstep Universe itself represents the most original SF concept in some time.
Imagery: 6/6 Complex but scientific viable concepts and visually staggering worlds exist alongside adventure, intrigue, and lines like, “There’s no refrigeration in the tunnels. We’ll be eaten by centipedes”(298).
Story: 5/6 We have a good story, though the final chapters feel truncated. Too much happens too quickly with too little sense of how the characters feel.
Characterization: 4/6 Flat characterization mars this novel. Toby is passably interesting, but not well-drawn enough for me to become as invested as I should in his trials, and in the relationships at the core of this story. Most of the secondary characters lack any significant, distinguishing attributes.
Emotional Response: 5/6 I don’t so much want to read a sequel as I want to see entirely new stories set in the Lockstep universe. Schroeder has reconciled Space Opera adventure with plausible science. How much story potential does that create?
Overall score: 5/6
In total, Lockstep receives 35/42