Luminous, Greg Egan

Millennium, 1998, 295 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-85798-552-4

Greg Egan’s reputation is already established: A hard-SF writer of considerable ambition, he invariably integrates stunning ideas in his fiction. Even though his shortcomings are significant, there’s no arguing that he’s one of the defining SF writers of the nineties. His influence is considerable, given that he now seems to exemplify Hard-SF. (It will be noted, though, that Egan seems to have few political ambitions and thus will not promote himself as heavily as other writers.)

His first short story collection, Axiomatic, was an impressive compilation of unflinching Science Fiction. Egan tackled the Big Themes head-on, producing stories that might have been slight in literary qualities, but iron-clad in concepts. To say that Luminous was heavily anticipated is to understate matters.

Was it worth the wait? Well, mostly yes for the fans.

The best news are that Luminous shows that Greg Egan has lost none of his willingness to confront the big themes. Tackling Happiness, Mathematical Certitude, Genetics, Cosmology, Sexual Orientation and -oh, that too- Consciousness, Egan is a perfect poster-child for SF’s grandest literary aims. It’s not quite as well executed as it’s attempted, but still…

The title story has a strong beginning. It doesn’t really meshes well with the remainder of the story, but draws you in effectively. “Mitochondrial Eve” is a good satiric story, with an impeccably readable style. “Cocoon” forces you to think twice about sexual politics. “Our Lady of Chernobyl” is a futuristic Private Eye mystery that’s as enjoyable as anything else written in the sub-genre. “Reasons to be Cheerful” is fascinating in the exploration of a few key assumptions.

Other stories are less successful. “Silver Fire” ends as it was just beginning to take flight. “Mister Volition” is almost a rambling monologue about some ill-defined point. “The Plank Dive” lays on the science too thick: I love Hard-SF, but this went over the limit. “Transition Dreams” is an interesting horror story à la Dick, but dragged on. “Chaff” is like a lengthy description of an neat idea, with two pages of plot at the end; it took me two readings to grasp the point, and it’s not much of a stunning one.

Containing only ten stories, Luminous is also a disappointment in its length. Still, it’s an essential part of the Egan bibliography, and a key piece of nineties SF. Wait for the paperback, sure, but don’t miss it then.

BRIEFLY: My conclusion after reading Egan’s Diaspora: I must stop reading Greg Egan on the bus. If, for some reason, you’re unable to concentrate, you won’t be able to extract all the good stuff from Egan’s concept-heavy writing.

A huge tale (both in space and time) of humanity’s expansion in the metaverse, Diaspora inverts most of the standard cliches of SF and, even then, presents some inspiring thoughts. If you even felt uncomfortable at the silly STAR TREK-style space exploration paradigms, this is the book for you. It’s not especially readable, or gripping, but it’s almost endlessly surprising. I’ll definitely need to re-read this one again in a few years. But not on the bus.

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