Karl Schroeder – Lockstep

This is my first Karl Schroeder book. I have his Virga series somewhere, but it’s always nice to try out a new author with a standalone novel. Lockstep started out really well, then became a bit bland and ended up drifting off into cliché-land. Better luck next time, I guess.

by Karl Schroeder

Published by: Tor, March  2014
Ebook: 352 pages
My rating: 6/10
Review copy from the publisher

First sentence: Two bright moons chased each other across a butterscotch sky.

When seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal finds himself lost in space, separated from his family, he expects his next drift into cold sleep to be his last. After all, the planet he’s orbiting is frozen and sunless, and the cities are dead. But when Toby wakes again, he’s surprised to discover a thriving planet, a strange and prosperous galaxy, and something stranger still — that he’s been asleep for 14,000 years.
Welcome to the Lockstep Empire, where civilization is kept alive by careful hibernation. Here cold sleeps can last decades and waking moments mere weeks. Its citizens survive for millenia, traveling asleep on long voyages between worlds. Not only is Lockstep the new center of the galaxy, but Toby is shocked to learn that the Empire is still ruled by its founding family: his own.
Toby’s brother Peter has become a terrible tyrant. Suspicious of the return of his long-lost brother,  whose rightful inheritance also controls the lockstep hibernation cycles, Peter sees Toby as a threat to his regime. Now, with the help of a lockstep girl named Corva, Toby must survive the forces of this new Empire, outwit his siblings, and save human civilization.

divider1The Lockstep: Hibernate for 30 years, let the robots extract resources from the planet, wake up for a month and reap the fruit of your (bots’) labor. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I still haven’t read nearly as much science fiction as I’ve read fantasy, so my mind is easily blown by science fictional ideas. This one may not have been exactly overwhelming, but it was a great starting point for a story, especially with the protagonist – Toby McGonigal – accidentally hibernating on a ship for 14000 years and waking up to an entire new civilization that he doesn’t understand. So far so good.

The novel starts out really well. Being thrown into a world thousands of years removed from anything you know will break your head a little bit. As Toby is trying to get a grip on what the universe is like now, how the Lockstep works, and also how he happens to be one of the most famous people in the world, I was happily reading along, enjoying myself. Karl Schroeder says on his homepage that he wrote this book purely for fun, and that comes across during those first chapters.

The thoughts about time and how quickly you can be thrown out of your life if you don’t live in the Lockstep, kept me interested almost until the end. You get an entire planet whose hibernation period has been reset as a punishment – they hibernate at different times and ratios from other planets, making trade impossible, and ageing the people much faster than any relatives that may be hanging around other planets. It’s quite a bit to think about and by far the strongest part of the novel.

“I’ve been trying to catch up, but how do you catch up? It’s impossible. Now you’re asking me to rejig time for an entire world? How am I supposed to tell if that’s a good thing to do or an evil thing to do? Corva, if I can’t tell, then I’m not doing it. That’s all there is to it.

But let’s talk characters – you know how I feel about characters. It doesn’t take long until new characters are introduced rather haphazardly, some of the dropped again, leaving me to wonder why they were there in the first place. Kirstana, for example, a young girl with a slight crush on Toby (of course [insert eye roll here]) seems to exist merely to point out things in a world that’s completely alien to him. She has no agency, no personality, but great tour guide qualities. In fact, a lot of characters are used for exposition and not much else. Meh.

Corva, the only female character who is around for most of the novel, doesn’t fare much better. Yes, she does have a plan that doesn’t necessarily align with Toby’s own intentions, but she is as lifeless as the rest of the gang of stowaways who save Toby’s life at the beginning. Jay and Shylif each get one thing that could be defined as a character trait – if you define the term very, very broadly – but not a single character actually shows any depth. Hey, this guy makes things out of scrap material, he’s a maker. And this other one is on a vengeance trip because his heart was broken thirty years ago. Apparently, that’s all there is to these two as they never talk about or do anything that doesn’t fit with these “character traits”.

And that’s my biggest problem. Because, as the idea of the Lockstep is spun further, Toby discovers more and more truths about himself and his family. Now if I’d cared about Toby, these revelations could have touched me in some way. But seeing as Toby is as pale a character as the rest of them, they left me completely cold. And don’t even get me started on the “love story”. Of course, our one female character has to end up as a love interest. Karl Schroeder makes the same mistake most Hollywood movies make. Spending a week or so with a person of the opposite sex (and why does it always have to be heterosexual anyway?) does not automatically mean you have to end up feeling deep love for them. Hell, I spend a lot of time with all sorts of people and manage not to fall in love with them. It would have been really nice to have a female character who has a plan, who tags along with Toby, maybe ends up being friends with him, and then goes her own way – or even stays with him as a friend. But no, we get yet another forced and terribly executed romance.

In the end, things are resolved quickly and far too neatly. But by that time, I didn’t even care anymore. One more thing I’ve noticed – and I really don’t want to be one of those people who compare everything to Harry Potter – are the glaring parallels. Toby discovers a world that is completely new to him. He needs pretty much everything explained to him, then he finds out everybody knows him. Surprise, you’re famous! Seeing as he hibernated for a very long time, he expects all of his family to be dead. Surprise, the second: They’re not all dead! And just to round it off, he also happens to be one of the most powerful people in the world who can end all the Bad and Make Things Better.

This isn’t a terrible novel, but neither is it a very good one. I’d recommend it to people who want a light romp through space, a premise that is actually quite gripping, but a world peopled with cardboard characters. Because the idea appealed to me so much, I’ll be trying some other Karl Schroeder books. This one ended up being only okay.

MY RATING:  6/10  –  Okay