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Schild's Ladder
Greg Egan
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Debbie Moon

In the far future, mankind has conquered death, can flit between flesh and incorporeal existence, and manipulates the universe to suit his needs. But some things remain elusive - like physical proof of the major theories of the universe, the Sarumpaet Rules. Scientist Cass travels into deep space to perform an experiment that will prove them right - only to see them unravel before her eyes. She has created novo-vacuum; a parallel universe where known physics has no meaning, and which is steadily expanding to swallow normal space. No way can be found to stop it, and no one knows what, if anything, exists on the other side.

As inhabited planets vanish into it one by one, scientists gather to observe it - but the choice between containing novo-vacuum for study, or totally destroying it, soon becomes more than an intellectual question. As mutiny breaks out, politically neutral physicist Tchicaya finds himself with a unique chance to find out what lies beyond the boundary...

From the very first page, Greg Egan leaves us in no doubt that this is big science. He does his best to make it intelligible, but if you can't summon any enthusiasm for lines like "..a bravura quantum manoeuvre that would allow the femtomachine to inject a partial clone of itself through the border and rotate all of its amplitude into the successful branch at the same time," then this may not be the book for you. Egan writes two kinds of novel - those with science and characters, and those with only the former - and, regrettably, this falls into the 'science only' camp.

Of course, the book does have some appeal even for those of us with IQs under 200 or so. Egan's views on the politics of science, and particularly on sexuality, add some of the book's high points; look out for a splendid anecdote about a clash between ancient man's views on gender, and those of his radically adapted descendants. The characters are not unconvincing, though their effective immortality does tend to reduce the tension somewhat. And once Tchicaya ventures through the boundary, a genuine sense of wonder pervades the novel, and there's a real surprise waiting for him at the centre of this new world. But it's the science that's uppermost in Egan's mind - and you can't help but think his theories would come across better if we'd become more involved with the characters expounding them.

If you understand the mathematics of quantum theory, add a star to this rating; otherwise, this is a challenging, idea-packed, but ultimately slightly un-involving read.
Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan
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