Karl Schroeder's "The Million": a science fiction conspiracy novel of radically altered timescales


Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/08/14/cicada-schemes.html

Karl Schroeder’s 2014 novel Lockstep featured tour-de-force worldbuilding, even by the incredibly high standards of Karl Schroeder novels: the human race speciates into cold-sleeping cicadas who only wake for one day in ten, or a hundred, or a million, allowing them to traverse interstellar distances and survive on the meager energy and materials available in deep space; with his new novella The Million, Schroder shows us how Lockstep is lived on Earth, the cradle of the human species, where a brutal murder threatens to blow apart the life of a very out-of-step protagonist.


Good. I like this guy and have downladen the book.

The central conceit of Lockstep is one of those sci-fi ideas that I get hung up on because however much you explore the scenario, it’s hard to get past the sense that there is no possible way to get to that scenario, because people don’t adopt radical lifestyle changes across entire civilisations in… well… lockstep.

The last book did have some self-awareness on that point, and it poked lightly at the question of what happens when people don’t cooperate with the hibernation schedule. Which I guess this new book also does. But, like with that China Mieville City and the City book, the premise is really chewy in terms of suspension of disbelief. I would be interested to see it attacked head-on, by talking in realistic detail about how a society gets to this arrangement.


Books this weird often inspire nausea for me. (And I mean this as a compliment.)

it’s hard to get past the sense that there is no possible way to get to that scenario

The hibernation itself doesn’t seem as farfetched as the justification for it: to “keep in touch” with the space-borne colonizers. If billions are in hibernation, does that mean billions are in space? (eg, even if a pretty large number, 100,000, were en route in space, it would still seem crazy for the billions at home to change their lifestyle so fundamentally just to be more “convenient” to the 100,000.)

And what happens when those travelers do reach a world and colonize it: do the hibernation cycles continue? (Not sure if its just one world they’re going after.)

Maybe this society needs to think through some of these issues first.

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More to the point, they decide to radically alter human existence because what, they don’t want people in cold sleep spaceships hundreds of lightyears away to feel sad? People that they will never have real contact with again?

There are a lot of Sci-Fi stories about people who fall out of culture because they’re jumping forward in time, so I’m not completely opposed to the idea of a culture that tries to not leave them behind as a counterpoint. But yeah, you really need to think this through because it’s going to open up a lot of questions. It’s sort of the futuristic version of Medieval Stasis.[1]

[1] https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MedievalStasis


To be clear, the given rationale for the hibernation makes plenty of sense: by synchronising their hibernation, distant planets can experience two-way commerce in real time, even without faster-than-light travel. You can go on vacation to a planet 20 light years away, and on the calendar it looks no different to taking a 3-week trip to Australia, even though your physical body spent 40 years making the round trip.

Once that was set up, it’d be a neat solution to the problem of light speed. And you can hand wave a lot of the minor technical issues. It’s just the question of how to get to that point that I struggle with.

ETA it’s also specified that different worlds can operate on different cycles, which thus have only partial or intermittent contact with each other. In fact you could have two societies on the same planet, or even occupying the same physical space, without ever coming in contact. (Which is why it reminded me of The City and the City).


Philip José Farmer wrote a series of books on that theme. “Dayworld” where people are awake one day a week, spending the other six in hibernation giving seven different populations.


I distantly recall a SF short story, with the same hibernation scheme, involving a guy who sees a girl in stasis, who changes his schedule just to meet her [which in the described world is an extremely difficult one-time thing]. They meet. They have a falling out. It ends with him seeking her out for a reconciliation-- only to discover her in stasis: she herself has gone to the unheard-of length of changing her schedule in order to finalize the break.

EDIT: I apparently was (mis)remembering Farmer’s early 1971 draft of Dayworld:
The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World.


In lockstep a motivation for the outer solar system (comet cloud, if I recall correctly) colonies to go on a slow time cycle was that they were in a super low-energy environment. They couldn’t live at full speed all the time. Their economies ran in two modes. There was the ‘slow mode’ where they essentially built up reserves of energy and materials with big machines and some robots. Then there were brief bursts of ‘fast mode’ where high energy processes like humans would run for a while, burning down those reserves.

But, yea I think he wrote about other lock steps and non-lock step communities. They just couldn’t interact all that much with the far out cold slow lockstep society the story was about.

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Also, I think the idea itself would be better to use the idea of civilizations at the end of the universe’s cycle (iron stars and such) where it’s all simulations and time dilation is in in the thousands of years with respect to seconds or even more for such folks being simulated (I need to stop watching Isaac Arthur videos). More likely is that civilizations as they slow boat around will get ridiculously long lived and a kind of politics of the oldest might take root instead of people taking on the lifestyle as you mentioned.

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Around the same time as Farmer, OSC wrote a series of novellas, The Worthing Saga, hinging on the same premise as Schroeder’s The Million. I frankly thought it was better than Ender’s Game, which was merely okay IMHO. Shame about OSC’s toxic politics.

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sold! (sounds promising to me)

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A link to TV Tropes?!



Man, that “Hot Sleep” cover is toe-curlingly exploitative. I could almost imagine it as the poster art to a Rus Meyer film.


ETA it’s also specified that different worlds can operate on different cycles, which thus have only partial or intermittent contact with each other.

“Box & Cox, In Spaaaaaaace!”

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Yikes! I hadn’t even looked at it. When I checked it out of the library way back when, it was the omnibus of all the novellas and short stories with this cover…


I just linked to the Hot Sleep story because Tales of Capitol and Hot Sleep deal with the suspend animation class struggle I was referring to. The rest is the kind of weird-ass bible stories in space you’d expect from OSC.

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“You would like to purchase a Bible? Can I suggest the King James Edition, bound in leather; the Gideon, in an attractive early 20th Century binding, or maybe your tastes run to the Weirdass Bible, clad in Faux Gnu’s hide?”


I’m all set…



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I’d like the pop-up version with illustrations by Hajime Sorayama and Wally Wood, bound in manta ray skin, please.

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Sounds great! Also a tiny bit like PKD’s The Penultimate Truth:


So I just read this book (as it turns out, more of a serial novella in the mold of Wool).

It does indeed take a setup where you think “that’d never work” and proceed to build drama out of how the asserted premise wouldn’t work. But having thought about it some more, I guess that’s a valid approach. It’s like Columbo, where you know who the murderer is, so it’s purely about Columbo’s deductive process, rather than a slightly masturbatory second-guessing game between the writer and viewer. (The recent BBC Sherlock series is a good example of how annoying it can get when writers confuse “knowing how it ends” with “successfully writing genuine cleverness”).

Because this book, and Lockstep, spend time discussing the sorts of problems that you start thinking of as soon as the premise is introduced, it becomes a sort of fun exercise in seeing if you can think of problems before the author does. That seems like an especially good fit for YA, where the audience may not be well-read, but are capable of enjoying being treated as smart. It makes me wonder how some other sci-fi novels could be improved by questioning their own world-building certainties. I can think of not a few gross-old-white-asshole authors who might benefit from occasionally thinking “what if I’m not right about absolutely everything?”

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closed #20

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