Noble Math to the rescue; plot & characters follow
This novel follows the familiar formula that Egan fans delight in: an alien hero works out fundamental physics to defend his/her/its species in a race..Show More » against impending cataclysm from natural forces that are not, initially, well understood. Here, the greatest stylistic twist is that there is no counterpoint perspective from a more familiar human or near-human protagonist, nor indeed, any additional first-person characters. The story is told in a sequence of episodes from the lifetime a single creature, our protagonist Yalda. Her planet and species are never named, being alone in their perceived cosmos, so I’ll call them ‘Orthogonals’ in reference to the unique premise that the story stems from. I can’t do any justice to the carefully described mathematics provided at every step of the hero’s journey, but can summarize by saying that her pocket universe has a different, orthogonal geometry from our own, and Egan has extrapolated this to invent a marvelous and internally consistent set of physics for her to discover along with the reader.
The novel’s theme is also a familiar one: The triumphant of applied science and nobility of those who practice it’s careful pursuit. Egan even pays homage to history’s persecuted and martyred scientists by including a dash of this to the ‘Orthogonal’ civilization he’s created. In his world, however, the selfless scientists manage to escape their adversaries and found a society of their own, where all injustices are banished and the whole community labor together for the common good and a grand project to rescue their planet. Great care is given to the details of each discovery and the particulars of the plot are largely devised in service to this exposition. I feel the story would have been more engaging and the characters more relatable if these narrative priorities could be reversed. I also would have enjoyed more interpersonal conflict and greater moral ambiguity in the characters, who all felt a little too single-minded and one dimensional (no mathematical connotation intended). Yalda particularly, is a bit too righteous, and would have been much more interesting with some dramatic flaw or dark angle. Her one social handicap is an unavoidable accident of nature, completely a faultless situation, that makes her subsequent sufferings at the hands of the unenlightened seem in parallel to historical figures like Alan Turing and other victimized minorities. The story ends with moderate abruptness, although not exactly a cliffhanger, and the largest question tensely unanswered in anticipation of the follow-up novel(s). However on its own, it still stands suitably complete, and will satisfy the reader.