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Lockstep
by Karl Schroeder
Tor, $26.99, 351pp
Publication date: March 2014

Our hero, Toby, is a teenager sent on a routine mission for his parents.  The family is homesteading a planet and Toby must lay claim to a comet in the system.  His little ship is equipped with a type of cryogenic bed to allow him to sleep for the trip. But an accident happens and Toby’s bed doesn’t wake him…for fourteen thousand years.

That might seem a bit disruptive for the formative years of a teenager but that isn’t exactly how it was.  For Toby and his remaining family – mother, brother, sister – the elapsed time is only forty years.  But that’s disruptive enough:  his younger brother and sister are older adults and practically unknown to him.  And to make it even stranger for Toby, his siblings are running much of the known universe, his mother hasn’t come out of her ‘bed’ for years and years while waiting for her missing son to come home, and Toby himself is revered as the Emperor of Time.

So, how does this universe work?  Toby’s family introduced the technology of the ‘cicada beds’ which preserve humans for, what might be, an indefinite amount of time.  Toby’s family and their original colonists discovered that their finite resources could be multiplied if no one was using them.  So what they did was use their robots to work, farm and mine for thirty years while all the humans slept.  Then, when they woke, they had abundant resources; so much so that they had plenty to trade.  But this universe doesn’t have FTL so trading with other planets was challenging.  By introducing the cicada beds to other planets and encouraging them to sleep on the same cycle, it allowed a trading ship, with sleeping crew, to make the trip during the thirty years, wake at the same time as both planets, trade and live on the planet for a month, load up with new supplies, go back to sleep, travel home and arrive with only two months of subjective time gone.  As more and more planets saw the advantages, they joined the ‘lockstep’ worlds.  This allowed human culture to remain relatively unchanged on all the lockstep worlds while the ‘real time’ worlds had cultures rise and fall over and over again, eventually losing their humanity on some worlds.

While the concept wasn’t alien to Toby, he and his brother played with the concept in a computer-driven game they invented as children, it was mind-boggling in the reality.  And it was hard for Toby to grasp why his beloved siblings appeared to want him dead.  It was also hard for him to understand why his brother was behaving as a tyrant and punishing worlds that wanted to leave the lockstep worlds or adopt a different cycle.  Toby discovered that he had an ability to control the cycle mechanism and was able to save a rebel world.  But using his ability pinpointed his position to his brother and sister who then hunted him down.  And through it all, Toby’s primary purpose was to find his mother and wake her.

Whew…that’s most of the plot.  But there is so much more to the story.  I thought this story was brilliant.  The whole concept of lockstep made my mind hurt a little.  And I loved the stretch of imagination.  With any less-competent author, this could have ended up as a mash-up; but Schroeder kept it moving smoothly and even when this poor reader was crossing her eyes trying to keep up with the concept, the story never got lost.  And I was very happy with the resolution.  The author was still challenging my imagination even into the closing scene.  I have got to find more of his work.  ~~  Catherine Book

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