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Dark Integers and Other Stories
Greg Egan
Subterranean Press, 232 pages

Dark Integers and Other Stories
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: 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 had been missing in action, as it were, for several years, devoting his energies to a very worthy cause, the refugee problem in Australia. (A story that seems derived at least in part from that experience is "Lost Continents" in the new anthology The Starry Rift.) But beginning a couple of years ago he has returned with a bevy of first-rate stories. Dark Integers collects three of these new stories, along with two older stories: his Hugo winner, "Oceanic," as well as "Luminous," the prequel to this collection's title piece. There is plenty of other new Egan out there, but this book serves as a good sampling, and as a sort of link between the old Egan and the new. (The two writers are, it turns out, pretty similar!)

Egan's reputation, first and foremost, is as one of today's preeminent "idea men" of SF. His fiction is built around scientific or sociological ideas -- that is to say, on speculation. Particular areas of interest seem to be mathematics, physics, and the workings of the brain (and indeed all of these ideas are often interconnected). Egan eagerly uses concepts from the cutting edges of these fields, and speculates beyond the cutting edge -- sometimes, as he has admitted, a bit implausibly. (And there is nothing wrong with some of that in SF!) As such his fiction has an aspect of didactisim in the pure sense -- didact as teacher -- so that reading his stories can be quite literally an education in whatever notion he is exploring. (Sometimes he even offers help with essays (even in one case an online game) further explicating his ideas.) Now this is all very well, but pure didacticism is rarely sufficient to motivate a story, and one of Egan's problems throughout his career has been to match plots and characters to his ideas. Mind you, Egan has often solved this problem -- sometimes by telling stories in which the ideas really do carry the whole thing off without elaboration; and in other cases by finding a plot which enhances the central idea.

In this vein it is interesting to contrast the paired stories "Luminous" (1995) and "Dark Integers" (2007). The earlier story opens with the narrator, Bruno, in a fleapit in Shanghai, with a woman wielding a scalpel and cutting open his arm. It's a thriller-style opening -- Bruno and his friend Alison are on the run from an outfit called Industrial Algebra, which wants a secret that Bruno has hidden in a chip in his arm. But the heart of the story is of course the nature of that secret, which concerns an almost unbelievable discovery he and Alison have made: that elsewhere in the "universe" (if that's the right word) mathematical axioms are different from ours. Worse, understanding the different axioms can be dangerous -- both to "our universe" and "theirs" -- the imposition of "our" mathematical truth is destructive to them and vice versa. "Luminous" is fascinating for that reason, but for me it didn't quite sell this idea, and the thrillerish material wasn't convincingly integrated. In "Dark Integers," set years later, Bruno and Alison and the Chinese mathematician Yuen, the only people in on the secret, have been maintaining a sort of DMZ between the two universes with the help of someone in the other universe. But now there are hints that someone else may have stumbled on this mathematical curiosity -- which could be very dangerous to the other universe. And likewise very dangerous to us, if they choose to retaliate. The story concerns attempts to explain some new notions about the maths behind this idea -- interesting notions but not that easy to follow. But the state of hopeless war implied between two incompatible universes is depressing as described, and in the end that's what ultimately drives things: not so much the idea, though that remains fascinatingly loopy, but the sad political reality that Egan derives from the underlying state of affairs.

The other older story in the book is "Oceanic," which won the Hugo for Best Novella of 1998. Here I think Egan succeeds again in marrying character with idea -- perhaps in part because the central idea is more sociological than mathematical. It is set on another world -- apparently one colonized by humans millennia before -- and it concerns a young man who believes in God -- as does everyone (nearly) on the planet. The arc of the story brings him to question this belief -- a traditional enough arc -- but his questioning is driven eventually by a realization that his religious experiences -- very real in themselves -- can be proven to be biochemically induced. All this is very involving in the context of the story, though I have long felt that the implication -- that the same applies to religious experiences on present-day Earth -- while intriguing is not in any sense proven by this story, so that the whole thing seems nearly irrelevant (in the way, I confess, that much SF is often called irrelevant).

The other new stories don't seem quite as successful to me as "Dark Integers" (or for that matter "Oceanic" on its own terms). And I think one reason is that in neither case is there that much of an attempt to construct plot and/or characters to carry the burden of the central idea. In a sense this is understandable -- when done poorly it can backfire as I've suggested with "Luminous" -- but still the stories come off just that bit uninvolving as a result. Even so, there is enough sparkle and imagination in the SFnal core to make the stories well worth your time. "Riding the Crocodile" is about a posthuman couple trying to cap a very long life by contacting the mysterious civilization called the Aloof in the Galaxy's core. The portrayal of the far future posthuman culture is intriguing, and the notion of the Aloof comes off pretty well, but never did I quite care. Finally, "Glory" opens with a spectacular hard SF coup in describing a pair of researchers being sent to a distant star. In the body of the story they serve as archaeologists of mathematics, trying to discover a long-lost theorem discovered by a vanished alien culture. All interesting enough, and well executed, but again it didn't quite ignite my imagination.

This is an interesting and fairly logical choice of stories for a book that represents a sort of "reintroduction" to the field. It makes sense to include both older and newer stories, and in particular from the older stories choose a previously uncollected award winner and the predecessor to one of the new stories. (Even though that story, "Luminous," has not only been previously collected but is in fact the title story of its collection!) And the new stories range from solid to excellent. If I were quibbling -- and I guess I am -- I'd have wished for the inclusion of my favorite Egan short, and in fact one of my favorite SF stories of the 90s, "Wang's Carpets," which is I think unfortunately sort of hidden in the Egan corpus as a chapter of his novel Diaspora. But be that as it may, the book at hand is strong work, and very welcome. And it only further whets the appetite for Egan's new novel, Incandescence.

Copyright © 2008 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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