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Crystal Nights and Other Stories
Greg Egan
Subterranean Press, 312 pages

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: 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 Greg L. Johnson

Crystal Nights and Other Stories There are hard science fiction writers, and then there is Greg Egan. No one stays truer to the precepts of hard SF than Egan, to the point where several of his novels, and even a few short stories, come replete with footnotes and explanations pointing the reader towards a fuller detailing of the ideas presented in the story. At its worst, this can be rather off-putting. The first chapter of Schild's Ladder, for instance, almost feels like a test the reader has to pass before being allowed into the heart of the story. At its best, the combination of thoroughly informed speculation together with enough characterization to make it personal has resulted in stories that present modern science fiction in its most pure and defining form. In much the way that a work like John Coltrane's Giant Steps showed the limits of where jazz could go, Greg Egan's stories show just how far the concept of hard science fiction can be pushed and still retain its appeal as fiction.

That means that, for someone new to his writing, tackling a Greg Egan novel can be a pretty daunting experience. Luckily, the man also writes short fiction, and as is the case with earlier collections like Axiomatic, the stories in Crystal Nights and Other Stories represent Egan both at his best, and his most accessible. Take for, example, "Tap," which presents the idea of brain implants being used to allow human beings to comprehend a new language that allows for expressions impossible in naturally-occurring human speech. When a poet of the new language is found dead, a private detective finds herself investigating a case that will lead to wholly unexpected revelations. It's a testament to Egan's depth as a science fiction writer that the idea of a "death word," a word or short phrase which so perfectly describes the experience of dying that the person who thinks it actually dies is not where the story leads to, but instead, where it begins.

The moral dilemmas of pushing the limits of technology are also present in the title story, which can be read at least partially as an answer to Theodore Sturgeon's classic "Microcosmic God." In "Steve Fever," the lives of ordinary people are overturned in a nanotechnology plague that is at least as frightening as it is comic. And in "Singleton," the concept of a quantum computer becomes all too personal to the couple who decide to make its creation a part of their own lives.

What these stories all have in common is a combination of a relentless pursuit of the limits of where an idea can take us with an ability to, when he wants to, show the effect of those ideas on people with which the reader has no problems identifying. That's not always true in Egan's novels, his last novel Incandescence is an example, and the last story in the collection, "Hot Rock," goes a long way towards establishing that point. Set in the same fictional universe as Incandescence, "Hot Rock" is in many ways a throwback to the old style of hard science fiction, a story which presents us with the mystery of a new place, one that on first examination shouldn't exist. The appeal of the story lies mainly in solving the mystery, but the main character is portrayed just sympathetically enough that we care at least as much for how the story affects her as we do for solving the mystery of how the planet of the story's title came to be. That's an element which was lacking for much of Incandescence. Here in Crystal Nights and Other Stories, he finds a way to balance the complexity of his ideas with enough story and character for the reader to care about them as stories and not just speculative essays on the latest in cosmology, physics or artificial intelligence research, and shows how good a writer Greg Egan can be.

Copyright © 2009 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson suspects that in the cosmic list of Platonic ideal forms that what one finds under the heading "Hard SF" looks an awful lot like a Greg Egan story. Greg's reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.

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