Lockstep: Karl Schroeder's first YA novel is a triumph of weird science, deep politics, and ultimate adventure

As I've written before, Karl Schroeder is one of the sharpest, canniest thinkers about technology and science fiction I know. In the nearly 30 years I've know him, he's introduced me to fractals, free software, Unix, listservers, SGML, augmented reality, the Singularity, and a host of other ideas -- generally 5-10 years before I heard about these ideas from anyone else. What's more, he's a dynamite novelist with a finely controlled sense of character and plot to go with all those Big Ideas.

Now he's written his first young adult novel, Lockstep, and it is a triumph.

Lockstep's central premise is a fiendishly clever answer to the problem of creating galactic-scale civilizations in a universe where the speed of light is absolute. The "Lockstep" worlds all enter into a contract to go into suspended animation on a synchronized schedule -- in lockstep, in other words. The main Lockstep civilization is 360/1: they are frozen for 359 months, and then awake for one, and then go back to sleep. Other Locksteps run faster, and when two or more synch up, there is a "jubilee" where everyone is awake at once and can trade. Meanwhile sleeping for years and years at a time is ideal for the harsh environs of space, where it might take your free-floating asteroid years to bank enough stray hydrogen atoms or photons from distant weak suns to sustain your civilization. And traversing interstellar distances is much easier when there's lockstep involved: even if you can only accelerate to 0.1 of the speed of light, you get a 360x effective multiplier on your speed if you time your departure right, and planets in the next solar system are only one "night" away if you depart on the eve of the long sleep.

Lockstep's hero is Toby McGonigal, who has slept for more than 14,000 years, ever since he was stranded after fleeing the decadent and corrupt Earth with his family -- who went on to found Lockstep. While 14,000 years of realtime have passed -- and on the "fast" non-Lockstep worlds, whole new species and cultures and empires have risen and fallen -- only 40 years have passed in the Lockstep, and Toby wakes to discover that his brother and sister have become dictators of the Lockstep world. What's more, Toby learns that he has become a god while he slept, the central figure of a cult that is used to command obedience through the worlds and billions of the Lockstep.

Lockstep is a kind of inverted Ender's Game: a book about social speculation, lightspeed lags, galaxy-spanning civilizations, and children who shape civilization by means of myths and political machinations. But while Ender is all about a child who learns the art of war and is forever pre-emptively murdering his enemies (and being made out to be a victim for being forced to kill -- a kind of justified George Zimmerman forever murdering a series of entities whom he "knows" to be a risk to him and his), Lockstep's Toby solves his problems by refusing to be drafted into the narrative of the boy-god, the boy-king.

Lockstep has enough social, technological, political and spiritual speculation for five books. It is easily the most invigorating, most scientifically curious book I've ever read that's written in a way that both young people and adults can enjoy it. It's a book that will make everyone who reads it smarter. Buy a copy for your favorite kid -- and another for yourself.