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Incandescence
Greg Egan
Gollancz, 272 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: 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 Paul Kincaid

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Why do we read hard science fiction? I know what it is: in a hard SF story the characters are bound by the laws of the universe, the threat they face is shaped by the immutable rule of nature. In other words, science is king, physics or chemistry or, just occasionally, biology provides the threat faced and the solution, if any. It is science fiction at its most intellectually austere, leaving little room for romance or colourful adventure. Most hard SF takes the form of a puzzle to be solved, but the puzzle depends on the state of our scientific knowledge. So you wonder, why not, in preference, read a science text book? Or, if the puzzle is what appeals, why not try a good detective story?

Such questions seem particularly apposite when considering a new novel by Greg Egan. Egan is, without doubt, one of the best hard SF writers working at the moment, but unless you are already convinced of the beauty of mathematics, there are long stretches when this novel is going to seem no more lyrical, visionary or startling than a text book. The longest and most exciting section of the novel involves two characters from a largely non-scientific culture slowly deducing the laws of gravity, of planetary motion, and eventually of relativity. If you are already up to date with the state of scientific knowledge, there is nothing challenging or speculative in any of this. Indeed, if you are already conversant with all of this, the chances are that you'll be jumping ahead of the plot: okay, if they've deduced that about spin, then the next thing they'll need to work out is... Of course, if all of this math is a mystery to you, then you'll be delighted to discover that Egan has the enviable ability to make even complex ideas seem accessible without recourse to a single equation (and only a couple of fairly crude diagrams). One of the joys of the novel is that it can leave someone with only a woolly grasp of how numbers work feeling empowered, as if they can at last understand how such complicated scientific ideas are put together. But you have to ask yourself how many people like that would be reading Egan in the first place.

There is a suggestion that Egan might recognise this dilemma also. Most of his invention, his interest, is poured in to those sections of the novel that deal with this modest mathematical advance. This is deliberately small scale stuff, it all takes place within a small fragment of rock known as the Splinter, and the creatures, though they are not fully and clearly described, seem to be insectoid both in size and appearance. But this is balanced by an encompassing story that is large scale, colourful space opera, a rich stew of sweeping vistas, technological wonders and breathless action that deliberately counterpoints what is happening in the Splinter. But where the story of the Splinter is told with care and detail and patience, the space opera is careless, ill-plotted, and fails to resolve any of the numerous threads of plot it sets up. The space opera serves, in the end, to provide a certain amount of context for the situation the Splinter is in, that is all.

There was a planet upon which there was an advanced but not yet space-faring civilisation; the planet faced certain doom; the civilisation devised an ingenious but desperate attempt to preserve life. Millennia later, the Splinter is just one of what we might call lifeboats surviving the wreck and now orbiting a black hole. Such is the background we eventually learn in the space opera; the rest is fluff in which Egan himself has no obvious interest.

The space opera starts off full of promise. There is a galaxy-wide civilisation, known as the Amalgam, which occupies all but the galactic core. Here, in the galaxy's central bulge, is the territory of the Aloof, who have no interaction with the Amalgam. The only time citizens of the Amalgam are permitted to enter the territory of the Aloof is when they take the perilous journey as unencrypted data across the core. Then one traveller is wakened mid-journey, shown a meteor with traces of DNA, and sent on her way again. Once back in the Amalgam, she goes to a bar, seeks out a complete stranger, Rakesh, tells him her story and he decides to investigate. Which is, when you think about it, about as inept and unlikely a way to open a novel as you can get. It is, on the very first page, our first suggestion that Egan isn't really putting his full heart and soul into this part of the novel.

Rakesh, with a partner, Parantham, sets out for the forbidden territory of the Aloof. Except that this is neither as perilous nor as challenging as you might expect. Not only do the Aloof create no obstacles, they guide them straight to their destination and provide every tool and piece of information that might be required. In other words, apart from the fact that they never appear, the Aloof behave exactly opposite to the way we have been told they behave. What is being set up, therefore, is a classic series of science fiction mysteries: why did the Aloof stop the original traveller? Why did she approach Rakesh? Why did the Aloof allow Rakesh and Parantham into their territory? Why are they being so helpful? Will the result of this quest crack open at least part of the age-old mystery of the Aloof? Before we are very far into the novel, however, it becomes apparent that neither Rakesh, Parantham, nor their author has any interest in even asking these questions, let alone answering them. Instead we get a straightforward journey to their destination, a little exploration when they get there, and nothing more. That even Egan is growing bored with this uneventful adventure is evident in the fact that the chapters concerning Rakesh and Parantham become noticeably shorter and further apart as the novel progresses; you half expect them to disappear completely before the book actually ends.

In contrast, the chapters concerning Roi and Zac and their fellows inside the Splinter become steadily longer and more frequent. Although they start out in a distinctly low-key, low-tech, colourless manner, the interest is all here. The inhabitants of the Splinter follow a tightly regulated, narrowly focussed existence, but when Roi encounters Zac he is separated from the herd and following his own idiosyncratic researches in the zero-gravity core of the Splinter. Roi becomes fascinated by Zac's endeavours and she decides to join him, and between them they effectively invent mathematics and astrophysics. The more they discover, however, the more it becomes apparent that something is wrong. Gradually building a team around them, they explore the nature of their world, venture daringly out onto the surface, and eventually embark on a bold attempt to change the orbit of their own world in order to avoid a cataclysmic collision with a rock that is spiralling in to the black hole.

It is classic hard SF: the quest to understand the rules governing the world, and then to find a way of applying those rules in a fresh way to avoid disaster. As in much hard SF, characterisation is minimal. Despite the fact that one is female and compassionate, and the other is male and obsessive, there isn't really much that distinguishes Roi from Zac; while the other creatures in the Splinter are little more than names. Though the nature of their culture, not quite a hive mind but certainly collective and communal in everything it does, goes a long way towards excusing such a lack of individuality. And we learn only as much about their environment as we need to understand the science. Even when, late in the novel, Rakesh ventures into a habitat that is clearly the twin of the Splinter (one of the real disappointments of this novel is that the two arcs of story never actually intersect), he does so in the form of one of its native inhabitants which somehow prevents us getting a clear view from outside: these are never characters in a landscape. Nevertheless, as we slowly come to understand the world and then discover the peril it faces, this is a gripping novel. It is just a pity that Egan felt that the story of the Splinter on its own wasn't enough to sustain a full novel; or at least that he couldn't find enough to do in the parallel story of Rakesh and Parantham to give each half of the novel equal weight.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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