Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Greg Egan
Gollancz, 272 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: Dark Integers and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Schild's Ladder
SF Site Review: Teranesia
SF Site Review: Diaspora

A review by Jonathan McCalmont

If the world of SF were a stock market then Greg Egan would be a blue chip company. Hugely respected and a doyen of the Hard SF scene, he is not what you would call unpredictable. Incandescence, his first novel in six years, is as blue chip as ever in that not only does it give you what you would expect from a Greg Egan novel, it has also prompted a number of equally predictable reviews that have lavished hundreds of words upon the trite received opinion "nice ideas, shame about the characters, plot and prose." I call this a received opinion as I do not think it is in the least bit true; Incandescence is a thought-provoking story about science as a community and as a part of the community.

The book is built up of two, apparently converging, plot-lines that are recounted in alternative chapters. One is the story of a human living in a post-Singularity, post-Scarcity civilisation so advanced that any limitation upon human freedom has been done away with whether it is the need to work, the ageing process, travel, education or even death. Humans from this civilisation can do anything they want to and, after millions of years, this is precisely what they have done leaving them bored and drifting aimlessly through life seeking some kind of distraction. The other story is of a group of insectoid creatures living what appears to be a large rock. So tenuous is their situation that all of their social structures are based around doing "valuable work" whether that be farming, transporting messages or logistics. They have no culture and no interests beyond surviving from one day to the next.

The key characters in both plot strands are initially part of their existing communities. Rakesh (the human) has been living in artificial reality, hanging out with friends and generally wasting time. Roi (the insect), by contrast, is a farmer who spends her days tending the fields and trying not to be recruited by any rival work groups. Both of these characters are then lured away from their safe and intellectually undemanding lifestyles by transgressive figures. In the case of Rakesh, this figure is Lahl who begins her attempt to drag Rakesh into a mystery by rudely asking :

"Are you a child of DNA?"
--[page 1]
Roi's transgressive figure is Zak, an older creature who appears to her looking visibly unwell. He intrigues Roi because the first thing he says to her is not work-related or even some idle pleasantry. He assails her with what appears to be Ockham's Razor :
"It must be something simple," he declared.
Roi paused courteously. "What must be, father?"
"Whatever underlies it all."
--[page 15]
From those points, both characters are lured away from their communities in order to devote their lives to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. In the case of Rakesh, this mystery involves working with an enigmatic alien race to track down a previously unknown source of DNA and, in the case of Roi, Zak sets her to work unravelling the laws of nature.

The bulk of the book is devoted to these twin projects and they perfectly reflect each other; Roi has no scientific materials and is forced to work out everything from first principles while Rakesh can draw upon all of human knowledge and construct scientific measuring devices at will but, despite the radical differences between the two groups in terms of access to resources, both use the same mode of scientific thought; coming up with hypotheses, running tests and then working out the meaning of the data. This is an interesting concept for a novel.

A lot of SF, while claiming to be "about ideas" is really about sensawunda-inspiring technology such as vast habitats, star drives or some perhaps kind of gun that disassembles you at the atomic level and then reassembles you leaving you unchanged except for the unshakable feeling that your name is Frank. Incandescence does not try to instill a sense of wonder, nor does it contain any Big Ideas. Instead its focus is upon solving small-scale scientific problems. While this is clearly an audacious experiment on Egan's part it unfortunately makes for a rather dry read. Egan's prose is simple and unadorned and as a result his ideas are always clearly conveyed but, unlike tales of Big Dumb Objects and killer robots, reading about someone working out gravitational fluctuations or performing experiments using springs and tubes is actually quite dull. Clearly, Egan was sufficiently intrigued by Roi's world to put up some drawings and maths on his website but in truth, the amount of detail lavished on these chains of reasoning smacks of self-indulgence and is likely to cause all but the most obsessive of physics geeks to shift into "skim mode." However, what is most frustrating about the misfiring of these chapters is that the book's creative priorities are determined by them.

As I said in the introduction, it is something of a cliché to criticise Greg Egan for weak characterisation and plotting. Indeed, this is a cross that pretty much all Hard SF writers have had to bear. But to criticise Hard SF for these weak elements is also to completely miss the point.

A technically well-written book is one where the different elements that make up the book work together to support the book's "point." For example, most mainstream modern novels are deeply wedded to the social realist tradition of being about mundane matters such as George Elliott's Middlemarch being about education and class. Given such a subject matter, it is only natural that prose style and characterisation should be prioritised as they serve to aid the depiction of the situation whilst keeping it entertaining while the characterisation gives depth to the relationships that make up the text. Similarly, a mystery novel or a thriller is about a series of events and so it is important that the plot be well-paced and that it hang together in an interesting manner.

Works of Hard SF, by contrast, tend to be about speculation rather than people and that speculation tends to involve complex ideas that need to be communicated in as clear and efficient a manner as possible. To introduce formal innovation or complex and subtle prose into such a context would prove just as counter-productive as a network of limelight-hogging relationships and baroquely drawn characters. As a result, it is foolish to criticise Hard SF for its formal and human elements as writers of Hard SF intentionally push these aspects into the background.

Unfortunately, in terms of writing strategies this does amount to putting all of your eggs in one basket because should any of the foregrounded ideas fail to engage then you are left with a very dry book indeed. This is precisely the problem that Incandescence suffers from.

Egan's failure to properly marshal his resources and write to his book's genuine strengths is further exacerbated by the fact that many of the book's secondary ideas are genuinely fascinating and could easily have redeemed the book had Egan invested more heavily in them. For example, one of the book's main themes is the fate of the intellectual. Compelled by his nature to focus upon larger issues than those that pre-occupy most people, the intellectual can frequently be a strange and lonely figure. We can see this in Roi's initial encounter with Zak :

Ahead of her, a lone male stood idle in the middle of the tunnel. He wasn't begging for help, and as she drew closer Roi could see that he carried no seeds. A moment later she recognised something else in his appearance: the visibly labouring heart of someone who'd ventured well beyond the weight he was accustomed to bearing.
--[page 15]
As a piece of writing, this is technically excellent. When we first encounter Roi she is assailed by men desperate to have someone relieve them of their seeds and then suddenly she meets Zak, out of his element to the point of being physically in danger he is totally different to the other males Roi has just encountered. This theme is again picked up later in the book when Rakesh encounters a similarly enlightened creature of the same species called Zey. Unlike Roi, Zey is not part of a huge creative community that rewards people who ask awkward questions. She is alone and working a mind-numbing job. When she learns that Rakesh could make all of her fellow creatures as intellectually curious as she is, her hope and pain is conveyed through the sentence :
"If you wanted to, you could wake us from our sleep "
--[page 261]
This is undeniably powerful stuff and it connects nicely with a late development in the human plot that suggests that Rakesh's desire to devote himself to a mystery may well have ensured that he could never return home. Indeed, the book's ending (which I will not spoil) is incredibly poignant as it is all about people seeking a remedy to loneliness and intellectual isolation. However, these ideas are never given more than the odd paragraph while the unrewarding science experiments are given chapter after chapter.

Egan's decision to focus upon one particular plot strand at the expense of all others is also evident in the fact that while the bulk of the book appears to be building towards a plot-line-uniting old school first contact scenario, it is never actually clear that the two series of events intersect at all. For all we know they could well have happened millions of years apart. Instead one plot line reveals some information that is important to the other plot line but the ramifications of this revelation are not explored in the least. They are simply allowed to hang there leading to the feeling that the book's ending does not work.

For all its hints of greatness and pleasing moments, Incandescence ultimately feels like a failed literary experiment. The counterposition of resource and data-poor scientists and a more data and resource-rich group is inspired as is the exploration of the social aspects of an intellectual lifestyle but unfortunately both of these promising ideas are starved of the characterisation and relationships that would have been necessary to properly sell these very human issues. Instead, the book is structured round a series of chapters which, while artistically adventurous (you rarely see sustained scientific argument in SF) are also frankly rather dull.

Copyright © 2008 by Jonathan McCalmont

Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic and cynic who produces criticism and commentary for a number of different venues including his blog SF Diplomat.  He is also the editor of Fruitless Recursion, an online journal devoted to discussing works of genre criticism.  He lives in the United Kingdom so that you don't have to.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide