Karl Schroeder is an expert in strategic foresight, providing a methodology that, as his website says, helps “companies, governments and other organizations in building the kind of resilience that will allow them to weather unexpected shocks.” It seemed obvious to me that his career would provide a great deal of material for a science fiction author. Schroeder hastens to disabuse me of that notion: “Foresight and plotting science fiction are very different things,” he says. “Foresight has to do with making decisions in the here and now; science fiction is a playground for the mind. In foresight, we’re trying to be a bit more rigorous in our approach to the future. With science fiction, I just go where my imagination takes me.”
In Schroeder’s new novel Lockstep, 17-year-old Toby McGonigal is on his way to stake his family’s claim to the moon Rockette when an accident pulls his ship off course and leaves him in cold-sleep hibernation for 14,000 years. But at the same time, only 40 years have passed for the rest of his family, who run the Lockstep Empire, which conserves the resources of marginal planets by enforcing a schedule of hibernation for the inhabitants. They wake for a month, conduct business, and then sleep for 30 years or so. As thousands of planets keep to the same schedule, it also allows for interplanetary travel in the absence of a faster-than-light (or FTL) spacedrive, because while you’re asleep, so is everyone else in Lockstep, which means that subjectively, no time has passed.
“I have gotten a lot of people’s noses out of joint by suggesting FTL isn’t going to happen,” says Schroeder. “It’s as likely as magic or Santa Claus.” There’s just no scientific evidence for the possibility of faster-than-light travel, he says. If it were possible, “there’d be aliens” on Earth. He wonders why authors don’t take the inability to travel fast than light into their writing. But “you have to ask yourself, how do you have Star Trek or Star Wars with thousands of worlds, when there isn’t FTL? The answer becomes lots of fun.”
Schroeder’s response suggests to me that Lockstep actually does represent a fairly rigorous approach to the future. He admits that foresight plays somewhat of a role in his construction of his future society, influencing his ideas about “how people would live their day-to-day lives.” In his view, most contemporary SF authors don’t bother “to answer…how the future would work—what people would do if they’ve got robots to do all the work, how does your economy work,” among other vexing issues.
He also had to consider how his Lockstep Empire would interact with worlds that haven’t joined or are new to the Lockstep, locations where time has flowed normally for the past several millennia. In those places, culture, language and technology have evolved considerably. While the “fast worlds” may be more advanced, the Lockstep worlds are, in some ways, “the best place to go, because nothing changes, they outlast everybody.” They serve as “a backup for the human species.” Civilizations rise and fall, but the Lockstep is still there.
But that temporal disjunction means that “the oldest parts of the Lockstep are also the youngest,” while “the founders [of the Lockstep] have experienced the least amount of history….The fact that the people running the Lockstep have the least experience…[is a] metaphor for the way that people in power become insulated.”
Toby’s return threatens that insulation, and his family is less than welcoming. His relationship with his previously younger, and now considerably older, siblings is so troubled that it ultimately leads to civil upheaval. His situation is mirrored on a smaller scale by his new friend Corva, who has also fallen out of sync with her own family; although only a few years separates her from their timeflow, that difference is unfortunately incredibly significant. “The most interesting thing about Lockstep was playing with family dynamics, which I have done previously, but turns out to be central to this book,” says Schroeder. It allowed him to examine the “different ways in which people solve a problem. Family problems are often the hardest to solve.”
In Schroeder’s universe, one can also sever past ties entirely, leaving the Lockstep Empire for a fast world or vice versa. “To leave either life is to leave everything—equivalent to stepping on a steamer or train to come to America. It’s irreversible and nothing can prepare you for it,” he says. The blunt effect of that transition “can only be answered on an individual level,” and Schroeder is working on some stories that answer it. “There’s a lot still unsaid,” he acknowledges. “It’s a very fruitful universe to explore.”
Amy Goldschlager is an editor, proofreader and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City. She has worked for several major publishers, and has also contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, ComicMix and AudioFile magazine.