“Ye cannae change the laws of physics!”
So said Star Trek’s beloved Mr Scott. Or maybe he never explicitly said that on the show, and only uttered that frustrated maxim in a popular song parody . Still, it’s undeniably and unalterably true. But what if you could?
That’s exactly what Greg Egan did. He just changed the laws of physics. Sneaky bastard. And the result is a mind-bending head trip. A trip taking place at infinite velocity, no less. “But that’s impossible!” you say. Ha! Didn’t you hear? Mr. Egan changed the laws of physics.
This was simultaneously both a delightful thought exercise and a real slap across my brain’s face, because unlearning what you’ve already learned is a much bigger pain than learning in the first place. Remember your introduction to relativistic physics? It was tough to grasp. You had to get all Taoist and Zen, allowing your mind to free itself from its expectations, apprehending the universe unfettered by the illusions deeply ingrained in it through a lifetime of experience. And now you’re going to have start all over again. Assume the lotus position and clear your mind. First there is a mountain, then there is no maintain, then there is . . . .
Back when you first studied relativity, you started with Einstein’s amazing, utterly counter-intuitive insight that light’s velocity is always measured exactly the same, regardless of the speed of the observer. Once you were able to wrap your brain around that, everything else flowed logically and inevitably from it. The Lorentz–FitzGerald contraction. Relativistic mass. And of course, the most fun, time dilation and the consequent twin paradox. As you approach the speed of light, time slows down. At a velocity sufficiently close to the speed of light, you could take a little trip that seemed to last an hour, only to return to Earth and find that your twin brother is an old man and all your Windows updates have taken effect and your system has rebooted. Also, your cat will be dead and the library fines for your long overdue copy of The Clockwork Rocket will rival the national debt.
Not in this orthogonal universe. There is no “speed of light.” Time dilation is essentially reversed (you’ll come back an old man, and your computer will still be installing the same damn updates). And nobody has a twin, though most people have a “co.” The mathematical details of the laws of physics in this new universe are spelled out as lucidly as possible in the context of a science fiction novel. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to grasp, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from trying. If, however, it doesn’t all immediately make perfect sense, you should keep reading anyway. Besides being a fascinating speculation on the physics of a different universe, this is also just a damn good story.
Our protagonist, Yalda, is as memorable a character as you could hope to find. And not just memorable, but also relevant. A brilliant scientist such as she, taking action against a global danger that most of the population doesn’t really understand, might find our non-orthogonal universe, with its own bizarre laws of physics, surprisingly familiar. And maybe she could offer us some suggestions on how to address the global threats facing our world, where human industry-induced climate change threatens all future civilization, yet is rejected by the sorts of people who for some unfathomable reason think that their utter inability to do basic math somehow gives them an advantage over actual climate scientists.
A fine story, through and through, and not too long. You could read it in a couple of days. But, if you are pressed for time, and have looming deadlines to meet, it would be nice if, by moving at an infinite velocity, you could have all the time you want to read, with no time passing from everyone else’s perspective. Alas, that won’t work here with our laws of physics, and you cannae change them.