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Incandescence
Greg Egan
Night Shade Books, 256 pages

Incandescence
Greg Egan
Greg Egan was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1961. He attended the University of Western Australia, graduating with a Bachelor of Science. An early interest in film is apparent in his first published novel, An Unusual Angle (Norstrilia Press, 1983). Later sales to Interzone and appearances in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror demonstrated that he was truly developing as a writer, with stories such as "Learning to Be Me," "The Safe-Deposit Box" and "Axiomatic." His 2nd novel, Quarantine, came in 1993. Then came Permutation City (1994), a collection of stories, Axiomatic (1995), and Distress (1995). He has won the Australian National Science Fiction Achievement Award several times, his story "Cocoon" was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1995 and Permutation City won the John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in English in 1994.

Greg Egan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Incandescence
SF Site Review: Incandescence
SF Site Review: Dark Integers and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Schild's Ladder
SF Site Review: Teranesia
SF Site Review: Diaspora

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Greg Egan's first novel in several years is as dizzying a piece of speculation as we have come to expect from him. But, like several of his novels, it doesn't fully connect at a human level, and for that matter the speculation -- dizzying as it is, and quite fascinating -- isn't as thematically profound as in his best stories. Though that's not quite fair -- I'm grading him on a curve he has set, and there aren't really any other writers playing in the same league. (Though something like Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum's recent novella "True Names" does resonate a bit with Egan.) It does occur to me that in some ways this novel -- and some other Egan -- resembles Hal Clement in its goals and thematic content, though I think dealing with slightly more audacious physical concepts: the environment Egan is ultimately dealing with here is a bit more exotic than Mesklin. But the motivations, and the core interest of the books -- exploring alien environments -- are the same.

Incandescence is told in two threads, which for some time seem set to converge. But part of the interest in the novel is working out how they really are related, both temporally and as to location. One follows Rakesh and Parantham, two citizens of the Amalgam, the Galactic civilization introduced in his story "Riding the Crocodile," after they accept an invitation from the Aloof, the strange hidden civilization based in the "bulge" of stars and gas and black holes at the Milky Way's core. The Aloof have enquired after a "child of DNA" to examine an artifact they found in the bulge -- a meteor which apparently originated on a hitherto unknown world that must have been part of the same panspermia that led to DNA-based life on Earth, before it somehow wandered into the bulge. Rakesh and Parantham journey into the bulge, and we see them study the meteor, and trace its path, until they eventually find what seems to be its original world -- which isn't their final goal, because they learn that the inhabitants of that world made a brave and remarkable further journey after their home was destroyed in the dangerous core environment. This thread gives us interesting details of life in the Amalgam -- much of it digital and somewhat virtual -- as well as hints of its politics and ethics, and hints (which is all anyone in the Amalgam knows) of the Aloof's nature. As I said, plenty here is interesting -- but it's never quite involving.

The second thread is set on a world called the Splinter, which we quickly gather is in fact the place the descendants of the people Rakesh and Parantham are tracking ended up. This thread, I thought, was considerably more intriguing, and more involving. The main character is Roi, who finds herself "recruited" by an eccentric person named Zak (it must be said, Egan's names sometimes seem positively Asimovian) who is obsessed with measuring the characteristics of the Splinter. These characteristics include in particular a very curious gravitational gradient, as well as a "wind" from the outside environment. The word "recruited" I mentioned before is also interesting -- the people of the Splinter are instinctively bound to cooperate in food-gathering and other important tasks, and groups can "recruit" individuals to help them.

Zak and Roi learn some very interesting things about their environment, most importantly, that it is changing, and, quite possibly, changing in a very dangerous fashion. They eventually recruit additional help, with the goal of learning still more, and perhaps further altering their circumstances, but in a safe direction. There is a bit of a cliché here, in that Zak and Roi and their fellows are collectively Euclid, al-Khwarizmi, Newton, and Einstein (and more) rolled into one temporally limited small group -- Egan does, it should be said, provide something of a rationale for this.

What they learn -- and what we learn -- is pretty neat and impressive. But, finally to me, it seemed only that -- neat and impressive -- but not, well, terribly significant. Perhaps I am brushing up against the question "What is SF for?" For indeed it has often been about cool scientific facts. But when that's all it is, well, that's interesting, but not much more. Now this book isn't just that -- there is some fine society-building, for instance, and some worthwhile ethical speculation. But that's not the center of the novel. Another mild weakness -- though perhaps this weakness lies more with me than the novel -- is that some of the concepts are difficult to grasp, and the book, while never a slog, is quite obscure at times.

I think my caveats expressed above tend to underrate this book. For SF readers, it is highly worth reading -- it is original, and rigorous, speculation about a very odd environment indeed. It delivers what it promises -- if Egan's very best short stories deliver more still, that is all to the good, but should not be held too much against Incandescence.

Copyright © 2009 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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