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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: Incandescence
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 Greg L. Johnson

There are hard science fiction writers in the world, and then there's Greg Egan. At their best, his stories and novels combine near outrageous speculation with a rigorous grounding in scientific fact. Several of Egan's novels, including Incandescence, his latest, come complete with lists of research papers and reference sources intended to give the reader some background and insight into the ideas that spurred him to write. At the same time, he has adopted a minimalist approach to exposition inside the stories themselves. This requires the reader to pay close attention to what may seem at the time to be inconsequential details, and assumes that his readers come to the story with at least a moderate knowledge of the latest advances in physics, astronomy, computer science, and even biology. When it works, the results can be engrossing, but the risk he runs is that readers could easily be alienated by the subject matter, losing interest in a story that simply becomes too hard to understand. In Incandescence, Egan pushes this tendency further than he ever has before, relating a story set in a far-future universe where the characters, their motivations, and desires are far removed from anything like the kind of life we experience today.

The story begins when a group of friends, including Rakesh and Parantham, meet a traveller who relates a tale of the discovery of a meteorite with traces of a previously unknown sample of DNA. Like most inhabitants of the galaxy, Rakesh and Parantham live as stored personalities in a virtual reality. The news of the meteor presents them with an opportunity to discover something new to them, and perhaps make a connection with the far past of their own history. They resolve to take off in search of the meteor and discover the origins of the fragments of life that it contains.

The catch is that the meteor lies in the heart of the galaxy, space that is controlled by a civilization known only as the Aloof. Contact between the Aloof and the Amalgam, Rakesh and Parantham's society, is nearly unknown, in fact, the exact nature of the Aloof is one of the few mysteries that citizens of the Amalgam have yet to figure out. For Ramesh, at least, that simply makes the chance to travel to space under the Aloof's control all the more alluring.

The second story in Incandescence introduces us to several very different characters. Roi and Zak are inhabitants of a strange place that they know as the Splinter. The Splinter is a seemingly spherical shaped object that floats through a space that Roi and Zak know as the Incandescence, which furnishes the Splinter with light. Their life is a simple one of farming and working in teams that join together to accomplish the tasks of everyday living. It's not until Roi meets Zak that she ever gives any thought to the kind of world she lives in, or to the physical laws that govern its existence. Zak sparks Roi's curiosity, and together they begin to explore the nature of the reality they live in. Unfortunately, they soon discover that the very existence of the Splinter is threatened by forces they don't understand, and which until recently they had never even contemplated.

Incandescence, then, presents the reader with two mysteries, Rakesh and Parantham's search for the home of the meteor's DNA, and Roi and Zak's quest to understand the world they live in. It's the kind of story that hearkens back to early hard science fiction, Roi and zak's story in particular recalls such classics of the field as Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, where the setting and need for the characters to understand it becomes the dominant theme of the story. Indeed, in this kind of book the setting becomes almost a character in and of itself, and the need to understand the setting dominates any other issues of plot or character that may otherwise arise.

In writing Incandescence, Egan's main goal seems to be the portrayal of how the inhabitants of a small world trapped in orbit around a black hole could deduce the basic principles of gravitational physics, up to and including general relativity, without any ability to directly observe the greater universe around them. Much of the novel is taken up with the observations and discussions of Zak and Roi as they try to identify the rules governing space and time. Unfortunately, their speculations are couched in terms that can make it difficult for even readers who come to the story with some understanding of the basic principle of relativity to understand just how Roi and Zak are making their deductions based almost entirely on the behavior of objects moving inside the Splinter.

Greg Egan's writing has often pushed right up against a line that separates straight-forward speculation from the literary values of plot, character and style. But where a novel like Schild's Ladder kept just enough of those literary virtues intact to make it work as a piece of fiction, Incandescence steps all the way over the line. The most intriguing characters here are Roi and Zak, and as previously mentioned much of their story consists of a dialogue regarding the nature of existence in the Splinter. For readers who are intrigued by that discussion, Incandescence will work as a fascinating description of the process of scientific discovery. For others though, the technical details of the discussion could prove too overwhelming to allow for any kind of emotional connection to the characters and their story. That's too bad, because Egan's ideas, as always, are cutting-edge and presented with a rigor known to only the hardest of hard SF.

Greg Egan has built a very deserved reputation as one of the best hard science fiction writers in the world. Unfortunately, a reader new to his work who picks up Incandescence will have a hard time understanding why that reputation is as great as it is. If you are new to Egan, better to start with one of the earlier novels like Permutation City or Diaspora, or any of the short story collections. Incandescence is a novel written strictly for the enjoyment of those already familiar with his work, and for those who expect that hard science fiction will have many of the qualities of a scientific theses, and fewer of the qualities of fiction.

Copyright © 2008 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson can appreciate the allure of living in a universe where personalities live forever and DNA is revered. His 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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