Lockstep: Great premise, disappointing execution

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder science fiction book reviewsLockstep by Karl Schroeder

I’m starting to feel like a broken record (Google it kids) here the past month or so, having had the same general reaction to a long run of books now — “good premise, flawed execution.” The latest perpetrator is Lockstep, a new YA space opera by Karl Schroeder, who has come up with a wonderfully engaging premise and setting, but has failed to create that same sense of engagement with regard to the characters and plot.

Way back in time in the Lockstep universe, Earth was controlled by the super-rich. In order to escape that highly stratified world, Toby McGonigal’s family buys Sedna (a real recently discovered trans-Neptunian planetoid smaller than Pluto’s moon) and sets up an independent colony. While there, Toby, the eldest child, is sent to claim one of Sedna’s moon’s and accidentally goes into suspended animation, only to wake 14,000 years later. Soon after he had disappeared, going into “sleep” (“wintering over”) became standard practice on Sedna — the colonists would sleep for year — using up no precious resources while robots did whatever was necessary to mine/grow/process/manufacture, etc. — and when the people woke up, they’d live a good month consuming resources, trading, and so forth, then go back to sleep. Eventually this became the typical fashion for colonizing and maintaining the new worlds — everyone would be on the same “lockstep’” cycle of wintering over (for decades by now), waking and “living,” then wintering over again. This way you could travel to another planet in sleep, arrive, stay in orbit, then wake when they do, and it would be as if it took you a mere day out of your life. The system cleverly obviates the need for FTL technology.

By the time Toby awakes, the lockstep universe has thousands of planets (most not actual planets, but smaller objects such as Sedna), and to his surprise, his brother and sister basically rule the Empire, his family having grown incredibly rich and powerful early on due to their monopoly on the original sleep technology. Because it furthered their aims, his siblings allowed/encouraged an entire mythology based on Toby (nobody ever knew what happened to him) as progenitor of the Lockstep concept and of his eventual savior-like return. Unfortunately, that was always predicated on the assumption he never would return, and now that he has, his siblings see him as a threat to their power, one they feel the need to remove by all means possible. Soon Toby is fleeing for his life, helped along by Corva, a young girl who has her own personal issues with how the Empire is run, even as his appearance causes all sorts of disturbing ripples — political, social, religious — throughout the universe.

As mentioned, I really like the thinking behind this premise. I enjoyed learning how it gradually came about, I like how it is reasoned out and solves in large part the question of how one has a multi-planet/multi-system society without FTL drives (which often involve a lot of handwaving). Along with that, because of how the Lockstep planets are out of the normal time line, they become witnesses to and a kind of seed bank for the “fast worlds”:

They gave rise to godlike AIs, and these grew bored and left the galaxy, or died, … or ran berserk… On many worlds humans wiped themselves out, or were wiped out by their creations… [there were] expansions, contractions, raptures, uploading, downloading, mind control, body-swapping plagues… wars, dark ages… when those would-be gods had wiped themselves out, the telltale silence from formerly buzzing stars would alert this or that lockstep, and they would send some colonists back. A few millennia later, the human population on Earth and the other lit worlds would again number in the billions or trillions.

It’s a great concept and I love visualizing how all that really cool space-opera-y stuff that is usually the basis/focus of a novel here becomes “weird stuff that happened while we were sleeping.”

As good as the premise are the tours we see of a few of the worlds, which are imaginatively crafted by Schroeder, such as one whose cities float in the midst of a gas giant: “the bubble he was in was at least a kilometer across, yet it was attached to an unknown number of others, like one soap bubble clinging to a raft of others… hover [ing] high in the atmosphere of some vast, dark planet.”

While I really liked the stage dressing, though, the characters and story were a different matter. None of the characters ever flashed to life for me — Toby, Corva, side characters all were pretty flat (side characters in fact had almost no discerning traits across the board).
Both Toby and Corva are a bit too passive, reacting more than acting, which combined with their flat characterization, makes it hard to care much what happens with them.

The plot has some pacing issues — moving too slowly in some places and too abruptly in others. There are some clunky expositional scenes. And I think it gives little away to say that one can see the romantic angle coming from light years away (sigh — couldn’t we once throw a male and female together and not have them fall in love? Please?).

By the end, the last 50-75 pages or so, I was tempted to start skimming, though I resisted the urge. Better pacing and characters as vividly drawn as the settings they moved through and Lockstep could have been a thoroughly enjoyable read. As it stands, it’s moderately pleasing through parts, lags in a bit too many sections, and ends up disappointing.

Publication Date: March 25, 2014. When seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal finds himself lost in space, separated from his family, he expects his next drift into cold sleep to be his last. After all, the planet he’s orbiting is frozen and sunless, and the cities are dead. But when Toby wakes again, he’s surprised to discover a thriving planet, a strange and prosperous galaxy, and something stranger still—that he’s been asleep for 14,000 years. Welcome to the Lockstep Empire, where civilization is kept alive by careful hibernation. Here cold sleeps can last decades and waking moments mere weeks. Its citizens survive for millennia, traveling asleep on long voyages between worlds. Not only is Lockstep the new center of the galaxy, but Toby is shocked to learn that the Empire is still ruled by its founding family: his own. Toby’s brother Peter has become a terrible tyrant. Suspicious of the return of his long-lost brother, whose rightful inheritance also controls the lockstep hibernation cycles, Peter sees Toby as a threat to his regime. Now, with the help of a lockstep girl named Corva, Toby must survive the forces of this new Empire, outwit his siblings, and save human civilization. Karl Schroeder’s Lockstep is a grand innovation in hard SF space opera.

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BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

9 comments

  1. Too bad. The cover is awesome!

  2. You’re going through a bad patch, Bill.

  3. Yes, that! Exactly my feelings about this book. Except I got a lot angrier about the flat, interchangable characters and the unnecessary (and unbelievable) love story.
    Apparently, in book-land, you must take care not to be around a person of the opposite gender for more than a day – because you will inevitably fall in love with each other. Only exception: When that person is around merely to dump some exposition on you. Then you’re safe.

    See, I’m doing it again. Getting angry even though it was an okay book. Your review says it much better than I could.

    If you need a pick-me-up, grab The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It’s my favorite book of the year (so far). And it gives you warm fuzzy feelings of happiness without a forced love story.

    • Yep, could you tell I’ve grown a little tired of the “just add water and let sit together for 24 hours” love story? Sigh.

      Funny enough, The Goblin Emperor just arrived yesterday—good to know I might break my streak of not-so-great . . . .

    • I like your blog, Dina!

  4. Paul Weimer tweeted to say he had a much different reaction to Lockstep, so I’ll link his review here, for those who’d like another perspective:
    http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2014/03/book-review-lockstep-by-karl-schroeder/

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