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Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan
(Gollancz, £10.99, 248 pages, trade paperback; hardback also available at £16.99; published 21 February 2002. Gollancz, £6.99, 325 pages, mass market paperback, this edition published 13 February 2003.)

What is at stake in Egan's most recent novel is metaphor itself, something that is, of course, crucial to the operation of science fiction. The plot concerns a far-future cover scangalactic civilisation in which (as with much Egan) humanity is divided by those who choose to live in their bodies, and those who prefer the possibilities of 'acorporeality', living as information in complex data banks. Travel through the galaxy is limited by the speed of light, which means travellers return to find themselves centuries, and even millennia, out of step with the people they left behind.

In a striking chapter Egan describes one world where the inhabitants go into a condition called 'Slowdown', during which seasons pass like moments, in order to keep in sync with a single traveller called Erdal; "while Erdal travelled the whole world would wait for him together. It was either that or break into a thousand shards" [Schild's Ladder, page 65]. Two children drop out of 'slowdown' to explore the world from 'our' perspectives:

"During Slowdown [Tchicaya's] Exoself has not only reprogrammed his own gait, it had tweaked his expectations of other people's appearance: moving both feet constantly on the ground, positioning the arms to maximise stability, had looked as normal as it had felt. With his old notions of bodily dynamics restored, the pedestrians appeared not merely frozen, but cowed and timid, as if they expected an earthquake at any moment." [Schild's Ladder, page 64]

It is the 'as if' clause wrapping this surreal image up at the end of this passage that is the key; throughout the novel Egan relates his weird and extreme cosmic states through two idioms: a scientific one that is dry and often baffling, and a metaphorical one where the strange is reduced and diminished so as to be comparable to some or other quotidian detail from general experience.

The plot sees a scientist unwittingly creating a new variety of vacuum, a novo-vacuum, that spheres outwards from its originary point at half the speed of light. Six hundred years later it has swallowed dozens of stars and inhabited systems, and humanity is fleeing all along its length. The meat of the novel concerns humanity's response, split between a desire to destroy it entirely, and a more liberal belief that whilst the new vacuum should be halted in its growth, it must also be conserved. When a new form of quantum life is discovered inside the novo-vacuum (and, indeed, the novo-vacuum is discovered to be teeming with life, with the implication that our own vacuum is a barren aberration) the stakes are raised. But Egan's two idioms are at odds when it comes to describing the situation. On the one hand are passages of such rebarbative scientific difficulty that any reader who lacks advanced level physics or maths expertise finds her eyes blurring. Here is how one character describes the novo-vacuum:

"Think of all the different dynamic laws that might make topological sense, in terms of the propagation of various kinds of particles that are defined as patterns embedded in a graph ... now imagine a new set of vectors that consist of equal amounts of all these dynamic-law vectors, and which are all orthogonal to each other. These vectors represent definite values of a variable that's complementary to the law vectors. Branco calls them law-momenta -- which is a bit sloppy, because they're not true Lagrangian conjugates, but never mind ... now picture a state vector which has equal components when written as superpositions of the old set, or the new" [Schild's Ladder, pages 129-30].

And so on. "I know that's horribly vague," the character adds, "but I don't think you want the version with added jargon."

Indeed not.

The obscurity of this sort of writing is of an interesting nature: the reader never doubts that it is decodable, with the proper educational grounding and the appropriate references, but nonetheless it remains an extraordinarily alienating textual strategy, even for the hardened SF fan. Egan seems aware of this, and brings in a range of deliberately simplistic similes and metaphors to provide hooks of recognition for the reader.

"To make sense of the group of four-dimensional rotations you could project it down to the three-dimensional sphere of directions in four dimensions, by mapping each rotation to the direction to which it took the x-axis. All rotations that treated the x-axis in the same way then differed from each other by rotations of the other three directions. This effectively sliced the original group into copies of the group of three-dimensional rotations -- which was just a solid sphere with opposite points on its boundary glued together, since any pair of rotations around opposite axes became equal once you reached one hundred and eighty degrees, like an artful rendering of depth in a painting, these striations made the topology of the larger group much clearer." [Schild's Ladder, page 98]

The process being described is 'like' the illusion of depth in a painting, inasmuch as it is a representation of 'x' dimensions in 'x-1' dimensions; but in fact the 'like an artful rendering' analogy does nothing more than repeat the opening premise ('to make sense of the group of four-dimensional rotations you could project it down to the three-dimensional sphere') without allowing the average reader any purchase on what follows, or any help in visualising the 'solid sphere' with its opposite points 'glued together'. We're not left with the 4D-in-3D; we, as readers, are only left with the painting.

On one level this is merely to say that Egan has not found a way of popularising hard physics and topography, of rendering in accessible 'fictional' manner the complex material with which he, we assume, finds perfectly comprehensible. But in fact it is to say more than this, because Schild's Ladder is a novel entirely dominated by the simile. One sect of humans wants to seed the novo-vacuum with 'Planck worms' that will destabilize the medium, which is described as like "infect[ing] it with a kind of fungal rot" [Schild's Ladder, page 107]. Humanity is able to breach the boundary between regular vacuum and novo-vacuum by inserting a 'scribe' that 'scribes' itself back to the observers with its data: "what if we scribed a scribe?" asks one character, suggesting the idea; "ha!" is the reply, "like that Escher drawing?" [Schild's Ladder, page 117]. The simile is vivid, but remarkably uninformative about the idea it is supposed to be illuminating. In such a case the simile acquires a life of its own, superseding the original; in our mind's eye we see the famous Escher sketch of first hand drawing a second hand that is drawing the first, but we do not see the self-scribing scribes about which Egan is actually talking.

Egan's dilemma is that he wants to represent a radical alterity; an ambitious and laudable science fiction project, but one with a series of very obvious difficulties. The more he stresses that the novo-vacuum and its inhabitants are radically other, the more his metaphorical, similtudinous manner of representing it starts to separate away from what is being described. We are repeatedly assured that the novo-vacuum is radically unmappable: "what lies behind the border is not another vacuum, another set of rules. It has no classical properties like that to discover ... we're not correlated to any particular component" [Schild's Ladder, page 93]. But the action of metaphor is precisely a mapping from one domain into another, so the metaphorical apprehension of this other-place necessarily transgresses its own circumstances. When two characters finally penetrate into the new realm, it is described in familiar terms: it is like a "honeycomb", "like an inverted sky" [Schild's Ladder, page 206]. The narrator tells us that "currents of different physics flowed around" the travellers [Schild's Ladder, page 208]; but 'currents' are part of our physics, and the analogy reveals nothing about the realm described except that it leads familiar descriptive discourses into aporia. Ultimately, these similes reduce Egan's promising alterity to a Jules-Vernean banality. The Sarumpaet (the craft in which the explorers are travelling through the novo-vacuum)

"might have been a glass gondola hanging from an invisible hot air balloon, drifting through a planetary atmosphere after a volcanic eruption had shrouded the world in dust" [Schild's Ladder, page 209].

And so the journey into radical alterity becomes just another voyage extraordinaire, with natives with whom the travellers can easily communicate, and who immediately take common cause with humanity. The 'Colonists', as the aliens are called, turn out to have a conceptual system "that maps quite well onto our picture, if you know how to make allowances for the parts that don't match up" [Schild's Ladder, page 247]. The unmappable becomes mappable after all, as if the concept of 'unmappability' is too unsettling to be allowed to prevail. I don't think it is Egan's imagination that is at fault here; it is the rhetoric of simile itself, the logic of 'the map' that he reaches for to explain his imaginative vision.

Schild's Ladder begins with a map, or graph, the tetravalent quantum Diamond graph on which the novo-vacuum is based, and which in diagram form stands as a sort of epigraph to the first chapter. "In the beginning was a graph," says the narrator [Schild's Ladder, page 3], the quasi-Biblical cadence reminding us that a new world is about to be created ex-nihilo. But this opening strategy should also remind us that the alterity that is the novel's theme is already mapped, already contained within the logic of the metaphor.

Something similar happens with the topological strategy that gives the novel its title. A schild's ladder (again illustrated with diagrams dropped into the text, Schild's Ladder, pages 182-4) is a means of ensuring that an arrow can be translated accurately through space utilising nothing more than the ability accurately to bisect a line. This is a map that is a metaphor, used by the protagonist's father to reassure him that 'getting older' doesn't mean changing radically; like the arrow moved along the steps of the arrow, so human personality moves through life. It sits a little oddly in the book, and relates to Egan's broader fictional themes, especially the notion that abandoning corporeality and living inside virtual worlds would not erase our human identity; that identity would progress, related always to the forms it had taken before, up the rungs on Schild's ladder. But as a metaphor for 'life and consciousness' it is so reductive as to be almost comical. This in turn relates to the often bloodless, over-cerebral characters that Egan draws. Tchicaya, a corporeal character, chats with Yann, an acorporeal, about what acorporeals do for love and romance. It transpires that they "give gifts, [and] show affection" to the objects of desire. What kinds of gifts? Mathematical theorems, and original theorems if the lover is "serious". Egan unpacks this intriguing but chilly version of love with another simile.

"Tchicaya was impressed. Mathematics was a vast territory, far more challenging and intricate than physical space. Reaching a theorem no one had proved before was a remarkable feat. 'That's positively ... chivalric,' he said. 'Like a knight riding off to the edge of the world, to bring back a dragon's egg'" [Schild's Ladder, page 97, ellipsis in original].

But the simile of the knight with the dragon's egg is surely more vivid and appealing that the reality being described, a disembodied intellect discovering a new mathematical theorem as a courtship strategy. Just as the allusion to Escher's Hands sticks in our minds when the thing that Escher's Hands was being used to illustrate does not, this simile ("like a knight riding off...") trumps the original. There is a precession of metaphors at work in Egan's imagination. And this is perhaps what we would expect. In this book as in others (Diaspora particularly), we get the sense that Egan really does find the prospects of acorporeal intellects roaming the "far more challenging" realms of mathematics preferable to corporeal beings wandering through real space. Mathematics, in this world-view, is not a way of mapping reality, not a simile for real life; if anything it has precedence, it is 'more challenging and intricate than physical space', as if actual space is merely one minor superposition of mathematics. Simile and reality have changed place, and reality is just a metaphor for mathematics. If this is the case, then Egan is serving his readers some harsh medicine indeed, and many of them will find it hard to follow his intellect into such territories. Our minds are drawn to the knight and the dragon's egg.

The novel is full of examples that function the same way. So, we are told, cause-and-effect do not operate in the novo-vacuum in a predictable way, and 'once you lost that, prediction in the conventional sense became impossible. You might as well try to guess who you'd meet in a crowded theatre in Quine by consulting the guest list for an opening night of Aeschylus' [Schild's Ladder, page 81]. But, once again, the simile here supersedes the content of the paragraph. The reader's imagination has been diverted into the theatres of ancient Greece, and not into the weird, honeycomb, dusty nether-sky of the novo-vacuum.

And this, ultimately, is the flaw in the novel, a flaw that runs from local observations such as these right up to the level of form and structure. Egan's plot functions on the two levels mentioned earlier, hard physics and metaphor. It is on the one hand a fascinating though dense and specialised conceit out of speculative physics; but on the other hand it is a poor relation, a 'simile' of a similar SF plot to be found in dozens of books and TV episodes. Science unleashes a rapidly expanding sphere that consumes and destroys our galaxy; scientists rally to try first to understand and then defeat the problem. Like Steve Baxter's Moonseed, Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain, or several episodes of Star Trek. But if those texts, and the venerable sf adventure tradition of which they are exemplae, use the disaster scenarios as metaphors for science's engagement with real-life threats from global warming to asteroid collision, Egan inverts the metaphorical connection. His text becomes a translation of these adventure originals into a conceptual, desiccated idiom; his similes the only places in the text where doubles back into the more visceral, gripping textual idiom from which it originates. "I'm not an idiot," announces one character early on in the tale, "you don't have to spoon-feed me similes" [Schild's Ladder, page 102]. But the similes overwhelm Schild's Ladder nevertheless.

Review by Adam Roberts.
This review was first pub
lished in Adam's 'Readings in Classic SF' column at

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© Adam Roberts 16 March 2002