Lockstep by Karl Shroeder: Stepping into a Possible Future

Karl Schroeder’s five-book Virga series was a spectacular mash-up of popular trends and memes: buccaneers, the courts of Europe, steampunk, AI — all dropped into a breathtakingly visual, theoretically viable science fictional universe. The books are smart and fun with a great cast of characters — and, although the series wasn’t expressly written for a young audience, its sense of adventure, eclecticism and familiarity gained Schroeder an enthusiastic YA following.

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder’s five-book Virga series was a spectacular mash-up of popular trends and memes: buccaneers, the courts of Europe, steampunk, AI — all dropped into a breathtakingly visual, theoretically viable science fictional universe. The books are smart and fun with a great cast of characters — and, although the series wasn’t expressly written for a young audience, its sense of adventure, eclecticism and familiarity gained Schroeder an enthusiastic YA following.

It made sense, then, for him to write directly for that audience, as he did in his most recent book, Lockstep. It was envisioned as YA from the start, but lost the designation just before going to print. Clearly his publisher was not sure how to market this and I think it left the book in a bit of a limbo. With a 17-year-old protagonist, the most linear narrative of all Schroeder’s books and a deliberately pedantic approach at certain points in the book, Lockstep retains a distinctively YA vibe, and it’s nominated for several YA awards — including the Aurora.

So I understand why adult readers might pass right over this book because they perceive it as “young adult” — but if they do, they will miss out on one of the richest and most promising science fiction devices ever conceived.

Lockstep is the story of the McGonigal family, who led an interstellar expedition to their own tiny colony world called Sedna. When their son, Toby, went missing as a teenager while on a mission in space, he managed to put himself into suspended animation until his rescuers could get there. In the course of searching for Toby, his mother came up with a time management system that could maximize their resources and extend the breadth of the search for her son: By synchronizing their clocks and calendars the colony and the searchers could enter suspended animation on identical schedules. In this way, the searchers could come home to families that were aging at the same rate as they were.

While the colonists slept, robots tended the crops and mined the ores, which enabled the colonists to awaken each time to an abundance of resources. Not only did this process improve the quality of life, going onto the same clock ultimately enabled inhabitants of different planets to travel to and fro, trade with one another and share cultural touchpoints.

The book begins with the awakening of Toby Wyatt McGonigal after a 14,000-year-long hibernation, into a universe that is literally run by his family. His siblings and mother are all still alive and own the technology that allows seventy thousand planets to share the same lockstep. These locksteps have facilitated growth and prosperity of interstellar civilizations. Toby himself has been elevated to the role of God/Messiah and his re-emergence threatens to unmoor the foundations of the interstellar empire.

The novel follows Toby toward a showdown with his now middle-aged brother and sister over the fate of the universe. But while Schroeder tells an engaging story, it’s the idea that makes Lockstep exciting.

I spoke with Schroeder about the central premise of Lockstep (I think he should have called it Clockstep — which contains the concepts of both time and synchronization) and how it came to be. The idea grew out of Schroeder’s dissatisfaction with the default modes of interstellar travel in science fiction — FTL drives and wormholes — that are more magical than scientific, and have become stock devices that are used and reused with no attempt to connect them to technology as it is being developed today.

“We have a literature about wondrous futures and no ambitions toward a wondrous future and no vision of how we could actually achieve such a thing. It seems like a very odd disconnect to me,” says Schroeder. “I’ve been arguing with a lot of people recently about the value of optimism in SF. I wanted to create a future that was actually possible. So I invented the lockstep as a way of having a classic space opera–type setting that might actually be possible.”

In the Lockstep universe, the lockstep does what real technology does: It causes a massive cultural shift that makes its widespread adoption possible. Schroeder explains, “There is no such thing as a technology that is adopted without a corresponding cultural impact. Conversely there’s no such thing as an adopted technology that doesn’t change the culture that it’s in.”

Exploring the intertwined evolution of technology and culture could give rise to an entire subgenre. Hopefully, the conversation about optimism and possible futures — and the narrative journey through the Lockstep universe — are just beginning.

“What if we stopped being carried by the winds of history into the future and actually started to steer our own course.” says Schroeder. “That kind of writing is what I find exciting. It’s not about what’s likely to happen — it’s about what we aspire to.”


Dale L. Sproule is a writer whose collection Psychedelia Gothique features stories that appeared in Northern Frights, Tesseracts, Pulphouse, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and many other venues. He was a long-time co-editor/publisher of TransVersions and has been nominated for the Aurora Award in four different categories.

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