Karl Schroeder makes a living plausibly guessing at the future. This might seem like it should be true of all science-fiction writers, but it's really not. Some use fantastic situations to put the human soul under the lens; others dream up future settings, not because they're likely, but because they make good jumping-off points for obliquely considering present-day societal issues. Others just want laser blasts and space battles. Few are professional futurists.
Schroeder is. From his Toronto home, he thinks deeply and carefully about the limits of physics, the promise of biotechnology, the solutions to grand technical problems and the societal implications when those solutions are rolled out. When he isn't writing these ideas into his fiction, he consults with business leaders on "strategic foresight."
He's paid to do this because his predictions are frequently correct.
So Schroeder is a pretty smart guy. He also writes pretty good adventure stories to wrap his big ideas up in, and Lockstep, which publishes Tuesday, March 25, is no exception. This novel has conspiracies and near-escapes and interplanetary battles, as well as a teenage hero who has been lost in space for thousands of years, only to be revived in an unfamiliar future as the heir to an empire.
But the novel also moves a long-standing science-fiction conundrum to the category of solved problems: How does humanity (or any species, really) create a galaxy-spanning civilization, given the great distances involved?
Up to this point, the answer has basically been magic: warp drives, hyperspace and other fictional technologies allowing faster-than-light travel. But Schroeder has shown that the problem is actually logistical: with planning and organization and a small improvement in existing technology, it's possible to travel light years in a month, if only subjectively.
The key is cryonic suspension. The apparent passage of time can be stopped, along with the aging process, if a person is put into a controlled freeze.
The basic idea was popularized in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although most of the hibernating crew in that film were killed by HAL, the psychotic computer, the basic idea is sound. With cold sleep, Alpha Centauri suddenly comes within a single individual's grasp. Not only is an interstellar trip now possible, it can be accomplished in a single night.
But the flip side is that, for the people back home, it has been much longer. The travellers return to a different world, family and friends dead or aged -- unless, of course, they had gone to sleep too, and set their alarm to wake them at the exact same time the travellers returned.
And that's the trick. With synchronized sleep schedules (30 years frozen for every one month awake, in Schroeder's novel), everyone experiences the same subjective time, whether they travel or not. Which means any planet sharing this schedule can trade, and its citizens visit and connect with each other.
Smart. He's a smart guy.
In Lockstep, Schroeder has laid out a world which is merely a generation old -- when viewed from the inside. But for those cultures that exist outside of the Lockstep 360 (the ratio of sleeping to waking time), millennia have passed. Whole civilizations have risen and fallen. Humanity has evolved beyond recognition, machine intelligence has taken over, a dozen kinds of armageddon have occurred and each time the species has started again. Meanwhile, for citizens of the Lockstep, a few more years have passed.
The socio-cultural implications are many and Schroeder, as is his wont, carefully details each of them. Throw in evil empires and prodigal sons and the result is a rip-roaring adventure sprinkled with occasional moments of quiet reflection.
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.