Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Schild's Ladder
Greg Egan
Victor Gollancz, 400 pages

Schild's Ladder
Greg Egan
Greg Egan was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1961. He attended the University of Western Australia, graduating with a Bachelor of Science. An early interest in film is apparent in his first published novel, An Unusual Angle (Norstrilia Press, 1983). Later sales to Interzone and appearances in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror demonstrated that he was truly developing as a writer, with stories such as "Learning to Be Me," "The Safe-Deposit Box" and "Axiomatic." His 2nd novel, Quarantine, came in 1993. Then came Permutation City (1994), a collection of stories, Axiomatic (1995), and Distress (1995). He has won the Australian National Science Fiction Achievement Award 4 times, his story "Cocoon" was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1995 and Permutation City won the John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in English in 1994.

Greg Egan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Teranesia
SF Site Review: Diaspora
Greg Egan Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

An experiment in the more subtle nuances of the Surampaet Rules, the fictional physics that has ruled the universe for ten thousand years in Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder, goes unpredictably awry, creating a baby universe that steadily expands at a rate slightly greater than that of our own. In other words, the universe is being devoured from within, and there is no crossing the barrier between the two universes.

What to do about the new universe is the main point of contention in Schild's Ladder, and the types of characters involved will be familiar to many readers of Egan's earlier work, especially Permutation City and Diaspora. It is a long ways into the future, some characters live entirely in computer storage, all are used to having new bodies grown for them in case of harm or death. Schild's Ladder presents us with a world in which people barely recognizable as human, faced with a life and death crisis, argue passionately, in dense technical language, about physics that may or may not hold the key to the basis of our reality, and may or may not save them. Now that's science fiction.

It certainly doesn't fit what the mainstream thinks of as literature, a definition that revolves around the two standards of character development and prose style. If you handed Schild's Ladder to a mainstream reader unfamiliar with SF, the reaction would probably be negative. You might hear the prose described as incomprehensible, the characters thinly-drawn at worst, wooden at best. And if you argued using the standards of the mainstream, you might be forced to concede the point.

Consider, for example, the opening paragraph:

In the beginning was a graph, more like diamond than graphite. Every node in this graph was tetravalent: connected by four edges to four other nodes. By a count of edges, the shortest path from any node back to itself was a loop six edges long. Every node belonged to twenty-four such loops, as well as forty-eight loops eight edges long, and four hundred eighty that were ten edges long. The edges had no length or shape, the nodes no position; the graph consisted only of the fact that some nodes were connected to others. This pattern of connections, repeated endlessly, was all there was.
A good portion of the novel, including most of the first fifteen pages, is in this kind of language. It's easy to understand why some people might be a bit put off by this, but experienced science fiction readers will see that there's something more than a description of a fictional geometry here. The book's second paragraph repeats the first three words, "In the beginning", with emphasis. These are words of myth, and the geometry contemplated in the quoted paragraph has to do with the genesis of space-time itself. The language is difficult, but it offers rewards for sticking with it. Egan is tapping into one of the more fascinating aspects of the last decade in physics, the growing merger of quantum physics with cosmology, and the wondrous implications of the effect of the physics of the very small on the creation of the universe.

Similarly, it would be too easy to dismiss Egan's use of characterization as the minimum needed to get to the science. There is an old problem faced by many science fiction writers, and Egan runs right up against it in Schild's Ladder. How do you convincingly portray the lives and feelings of characters who live so far in the future that they can be barely be thought of as human?

Egan's characters are not 21st century human beings, and they do not act like us. There is a lack of sexual tension, for the good reason that genetic modifications, much like those of the people in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, have eliminated gender and sex-based competition. The ability to record personalities and store them in computers, or new bodies, changes these people's attitudes towards life and death. For example, a character casually mentions in passing that he has died three times in the previous two chapters, events that had no effect on his life at the time. When one resident decides to travel to another solar system, an entire planet of people slows down their perception of time so that they will be in sync when the traveller returns. (There is no faster than light travel in Egan's universe.)

Yet people still do have hopes and dreams, they fall in and out of love, and when one character dies, her friend and lover reflects that "He was not an acorporeal. He had never found a way to love her that entirely surrendered the notion that her body was the thing to cherish and protect."

In this way Egan gives just enough to care about these characters and their problems, without hiding the fact that they and their lives are much different than ours, and their problems are discussed in language that can force the reader to take a break every few pages, just to try and figure it out.

But no one ever said all fiction should be easy to understand, and Schild's Ladder is nothing if not challenging. It is also, to pick a few words: Awesome. Confusing. Enlightening. Maddening. Frustrating. Brilliant.

Copyright © 2002 Greg L. Johnson

While reading Schild's Ladder, reviewer Greg L. Johnson, was glad he had already read these books:
The Second Creation, Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann, Macmillan, 1986
The Whole Shebang, Timothy Ferris, Simon & Schuster, 1997
The Life of the Cosmos, Lee Smolin, Oxford University Press, 1997
His reviews also appear in The New York Review of Science Fiction.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide