Review: The Eternal Flame

“This kind of research is more like exploration than engineering. It doesn’t always take you where you expected to go.”

Greg Egan

The Eternal FlameThe Eternal Flame is Greg Egan’s sequel to the fabulous and feminist Clockwork Rocket.

It’s not quite as good, say sorry.

Aboard the Peerless, the aforesaid clockwork rocket, all is not well. A population boom means that food is a rationed commodity, and couples are only entitled to two children instead of the usual four. This leaves three choices for the women of the Peerless: go childless; have two of their children killed at birth; or starve themselves in the hope of splitting into only two children when the time comes.

Most of the women choose to starve themselves. #feminism

Biologist Carlo hopes to solve the crisis by investigating biparity in animals, looking for a way to trick female bodies into thinking there’s a famine without women having to starve themselves.

Meanwhile, his co (read: spouse), Carla, has bigger ambitions: she’s trying to solve the fuel problem inherent to the Peerless‘ mission by, er, doing physics. This means that, like The Clockwork Rocket, The Eternal Flame has lots and lots of graphs.

Although charged with the radical energies of a deeply-felt and nuanced feminism (equating sex with death for women is a masterstroke of worldbuilding in this respect, although it’s becoming a bit tired by this second volume), Egan’s book is primarily a book about science. Which is funny, because it’s also a book about change – a quintessentially science-fictional theme, as Cecilia Tan pointed out in her essay in Strange Horizons a couple of weeks ago:

all other genres restore the status quo as part of their endings. In a mystery, the culprit is revealed and justice is served. In a romance, broken hearts are mended. In science fiction, the status quo of whatever world has been created is disrupted in the course of the story and irrevocably changed.

All of our main characters encounter something deeply unexpected which disrupts whatever they’ve come to accept. Carlo, expecting to find out how to trigger biparity in women, instead finds a way for women to have a single child – and survive. Carla expects to discover a use for orthogonal matter, but finds herself creating a theory for how to build an extremely efficient, light-powered engine. Tamara expects to have children with her co Tamaro, but ends up the first single mother in her race’s history. Carlo expects to save Carla from certain death, but – well, she has other ideas.

And the agent of change in all of these instances is science, and the scientific process. How often do we think of science as an established body of facts, as canon laid down by white-haired old gentlemen in the long ago? Egan’s project is to banish that image: science is a living thing, done by women and aliens and deviants, a thing that can change civilisations.

It’s interesting to note that there is one stagnant force in The Eternal Flame, and that is culture. After generations aboard the Peerless since Yalda established what looked to be a utopian paradise, where women and men could choose their fates alike, cultural forces have pulled the mores of her race back to a society where couples are still the norm and where women’s flesh can still be considered as only borrowed from her descendants – to be paid back at a time of her co’s choosing, naturally. The people of the Peerless are essentially conservative; it’s only by doing science that the world can be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new age. This, I think, is why it’s important that the novel centres on feminism: Egan’s point is that science and the scientific process is a force not only for change but for progression. It doesn’t just change the world; it makes it better.

And I think this dovetails nicely with Egan’s handling of the theme of choice. The novel is full of people, usually men, trying to take women’s choices away from them. This doesn’t even have to be malicious: Carlo wants to have children, but doesn’t want to lose Carla, and he thinks that he’s found a way to do both. Her choice at the end of the novel to reproduce conventionally is a triumph precisely because it’s a true choice (as Yalda’s was at the end of The Clockwork Rocket), and because it renders Carlo’s “saving” of the women of the Peerless less problematic: as Carla’s choice reveals, he’s not deciding what women do with their bodies, only offering them another choice. Science doesn’t prescribe or decide for us, despite the fears of the people of the Peerless: it only offers us choices.

I said that I didn’t like Flame as much as I liked Rocket, and that’s still true. I suspect, though, that it’s more of a personal thing: there seemed to be a higher physics to story ratio, which, since I don’t actually understand any of the physics, makes the book just that bit less interesting; and I also think that Flame‘s worldbuilding has been robbed of its surprise after Rocket. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t think Rocket really needed a sequel, not even this one.

Still, feminist science fiction, and science fiction that actually understands how science works, is few and far between, and on both subjects this is excellent. So: YMMV.

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