Schild’s Ladder

By Greg Egan

JUNE 28, 2008
I grabbed this book because it was on the shelf next to the DIASPORA book and because someone swore to me online that Greg Egan was the Best. Writer. Ever. I am reading DIASPORA mostly to test my memory and to see if it actually is the book I’ve been trying to recollect. I didn’t even read the book jacket for this one. It’s kinda interesting to be in the position of knowing almost nothing about a story before starting it.

This book is so already much better than DIASPORA, but I’ve really only read the preface. Still, there’s an actual character who is reacting to events in a reasonable amount of time, and who actually feels emotions and regrets. The science hasn’t taken over the story yet. Plus it’s funny to think of what it would be like to shrink your body to two millimeters in order to make traveling easier!

There’s a real story. It’s so much more interesting to read than DIASPORA because of it. Now, it’s a shallow story and it still only serves to feature the vacuum problem (which I don’t fully understand), but the characters are talking about how real life is affected by these theoretical scientific advances. For example: Are you a bad parent if you abandon your children before they turn one hundred, if the average life span is, well, infinite? Is a culture still a culture if all the people move all the buildings and set up the same town on another planet? What should the ethics of settling on a planet with native life be?

Whether or not those kinds of physics and biological questions fascinate you is a matter of taste. If you don’t care about them, you may not like the book because the characters aren’t that three-dimensional and the story isn’t that compelling. But at least I’ve learned that the author is capable of writing science fiction according to the generally accepted rules of what fiction is. Up to page 100, anyway.

Yeah, the book was OK. We did stay with the characters until the very end, and there was some redemption of a character, but it did turn into a travelogue of a place that isn’t possible for a brain that functions in three spatial dimensions to visualize. So these two characters were floating around in it talking to each other about it and mostly doing nothing. I still am happy that the conventions of “story” were followed, but I’m not really happy with this author. Sure he brings up interesting ideas, but in passing. He’s not interested in the things I am interested in. He likes to write and write and write about what X-theory IS, but I like to read about what X-theory does to people and how I would react if I were faced with this scenario.

Now I will relieve you of the need to read the book by giving you some main themes to think about. All the author does is identify them; his characters and plot don’t develop them, so if I’m still thinking about them later it’s all because I am wondering about what I would do and not if I agree with what his characters did, because they really did nothing:

  • Can we ever really know science for sure?
  • Are all sentient species equal or does technological advancement matter?
  • Does the human experience require mortality? Does it require a physical body?
  • Are humans evolving away from sexual dimorphism?
  • Is culture a place or a people?
  • Is a family with twenty generations living at once still a family?
  • Should scientists be punished for their dangerous mistakes?
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