Teranesia, Greg Egan

Gollancz, 1999, 249 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-06855-8

Greg Egan is back, and this time he’s offering something different.

Egan has made his enviable reputation in the Science-Fiction field (“One of the genre’s great ideas men” —The Times) by delivering stories and novels with an unusually high concept density. It also helps that he’s a hard-SF writer of the old school: All of his stories are built around one cool idea and the question “What if…?”

On the other hand, most critics have been prompt to mention that Egan isn’t a good stylist, doesn’t build compelling characters or writes lamentable dialogue. (To be fair, there’s some truth to this: Egan often comes up in English-French translation discussions, as a case example of the trade-offs needed to remain faithful to the source material; most translators just itch to “improve” his prose style.)

Egan’s previous 1998 novel, Diaspora, was a dense, fiercely original, quasi-unreadable work of impressive vision and frustrating writing. Any SF writer could justifiably take a break after such an effort. Most readers, however, won’t expect the complete shift taken with Teranesia.

It starts with a lengthy prologue in which we’re introduced to Prabir Suresh, a nine-year-old boy living with his sister and his parent scientists alone on Teranesia, an isolated Indonesian island. Stuff happens and Prabir is forced to seek refuge in Canada along with his sister. Years later, Prabir finds himself drawn once again to Teranesia, lured by reports of unexplainable mutations.

The first surprise of Teranesia is its pacing. Unlike the often-frenetic movement that characterized the first few pages of his first novels, like the breathtaking “digitalization” scene that opens Permutation City or the mesmerizing after-death-confession of Distress, Teranesia leisurely establishes Prabir’s character before doing anything else. It’s unusual for Egan, and not really practical in hooking the reader’s attention.

The leisurely pace is maintained though most of the book, but the book’s appeal picks up once the narrative moves to Toronto, just in time for vicious (and overdone, yet hysterically funny) attacks on new-age / feminist / post-modernist / anti-science rhetoric. If you pay attention, you’ll notice by this point that the prose is more pondered, the characters more fleshed out than in Egan’s previous work. There aren’t as many idea, though, even if Egan fans will recognize most of the landscape. In representing a non-Anglocentric near-future scenario, Egan evokes memories of recent works by Bruce Sterling.

The late explosion of concepts, when it comes, is a lot of fun though there’s a feeling that they arrive a little too late for full satisfaction. The unfinished ending (“AND WHAT HAPPENS *NEXT*??”) is also disappointing, -yet a cut above Egan’s usual reformat-the-universe conclusions- and adds to the feeling that for a writer who ventured in post-human territory as often as Egan, he’s taking a curiously reactionary position…

The result is kind of a new Egan, one that seemingly set out to write an easygoing novel to address most of his perceived weaknesses: the prose, the characters, the ending… While Teranesia doesn’t fully live up to Egan’s previous body of work, it’s a novel that shows promise for the author’s next books. It’s probably not coincidental that Teranesia is also the author’s most accessible novel. It’s always interesting to see an author grow…

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