Tag Archives: Greg Egan

An Unusual Angle, Greg Egan

Norstrilia Press, 1983, 200 pages, ISBN 0-909106-12-6 

Authors who publish at a very young age (that is; before they’re ready) should be aware that anything they’ve written remains in their bibliography forever.  I’m not a big fan of holding earlier works against authors who later went on to write more polished works (everyone is allowed a few youthful indiscretions, and mine happen to be available elsewhere on this web site), but it’s certainly interesting to go and have a look at early works and draw links with what followed.

Ask around, for instance, and most Science-Fiction fans will tell you that Australian hard-SF superstar Greg Egan’s first novel was 1992’s Quarantine, published after Egan made a name for himself as a writer of fine short stories.  The truth, as more knowledgeable bibliographers know, is that Egan’s real first novel publication dates back to 1983’s An Unusual Angle, a novel that straddles the line between psychological drama and deniable fantasy.  Egan having being born in 1961, it would mean that the novel would have been written and published in his early twenties.

From the plot summary, we can guess that this is a novel by a writer barely out of school: It’s about a young man going through Australian high school and commenting on the inanity of what surrounds him.  Our narrator tells us that he has a camera in his skull, but that he can’t get the film out.  Much of the novel allows for some artistic discretion as to whether this is a literary device, a delusion or the truth.  (The final chapter, if taken literally, settles the question more conclusively.)

The point of the conceit is to allow Egan to describe four years of high school with a strongly detached narrator and movie-based metaphors.  Our narrator is brighter than anyone else around him, and seems passionate about film.  He describes school assemblies on a shot-per-shot basis, with occasional flights of fancy disavowed a few lines later.  Strongly isolated in his own head, the narrator has few (if any) friends, certainly nothing as conventional as a girlfriend and actually seems to despise both everyone and everything that’s not from him.  The cumulative impact of such an attitude against the world is toxic; the narrator becomes obnoxious, as the narrative can’t seem to find any joy in the world.  (And I say this as someone who often regarded high school in much the same “I’m bored; when does the real world begin?” attitude as our narrator here –twenty years of perspective works wonders at being embarrassed at our younger selves.)

Here and there, mind you, we can find glimmers of Egan’s later motifs and techniques.  Our narrator is unusually quick to explain the world in scientific concepts that wouldn’t be out of place in much of Egan’s later fiction.  The way he explains the camera in his skull is the kind of exotic biology that would pop up in his latter short stories.  Furthermore, the impulsion to dismiss much of the imposed events of the ordinary world and seek excitement in outlandish fantasies is common to many hard-SF readers, regardless of their age.

All of these quirks and hints make An Unusual Angle an unusually interesting read, especially for those who have read nearly everything else by Egan.  Even by SF standards, Egan often stands alone (his hard-SF novels often earn the distinction to be too hard for even dedicated hard-SF readers) and this sense of exceptionality permeates his first novel from beginning to end.  While Egan hasn’t disavowed this novel, he may regard it as non-essential work: a trawl through his extensive web site reveals only two mentions of An Unusual Angle: Once within his official bibliography, and another within an interview discussion of early publishing efforts.  So let us regard this first novel as a curio, and celebrate Quarantine as the real start of his body of work.

Zendegi, Greg Egan

Gollancz, 2010, 332 pages, C$24.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-575-08618-0

After two quasi-incomprehensible novels that pushed the edge of what even jaded hard-SF fans were willing to stomach, Greg Egan’s latest novel Zendegi is a return to a more accessible style that will remind his faithful readers of Teranesia.  Set in a near future and focusing intensely on mid-step technological issues, it’s notable for its attention to characters, openness to non-western culture and pessimistic contradiction of previous Egan novels.

Structurally split between a first third set in 2012 and a second section set in 2027-2028, Zendegi first spends time with Australian journalist Martin Seymour as he travels to Iran and gets involved in a second Iranian revolution.  While this first half is mostly told as a techno-thriller set five minutes in the future, a subplot featuring Nasim, an expatriate Iranian scientist working in neurobiology, suggests the novel’s ultimate SF goals.

Fifteen years later, the novel comes closer to the kind of future imagined in Egan’s other novels.  Virtual Worlds are now fully immersive, and new techniques are helping digitize aspects of human behaviour as semi-autonomous agents.  It’s not quite artificial intelligence, but it’s steadily getting closer.  So close, in fact, that when Seymour is diagnosed with a potentially incurable cancer, he contacts Nasim to be partially recorded in order to provide guidance to his soon-to-be-orphaned son.  Meanwhile, the convergence between human brains and virtual models is raising both hopes and controversy –leading to a few scenes of virtual vandalism with a darker purpose.

With Zendegi, Egan takes a closer look at the middle-steps on the way to the kind of fully-digital futures he described in books such as Diaspora.  SF traditionally assumes an intermediate “…and something magical happens…” in-between the present and an AI-enabled future, but a few writers are occasionally willing to dive into the morass and set stories in the messy interim period.  (Recently, both Robert J. Sawyer with his WWW series and Ted Chiang in The Lifecycle of Software Objects have treaded upon similar themes.)

Accordingly, there’s nothing simple or optimistic about Egan’s treatment of the subject in Zendegi.  Various approximations, shortcuts and compromises are required before having even the simplest simulated personalities up and running, and much of the effort is motivated by strictly mercenary gain as various online services compete for profit.  The main plot of the novel itself is a mournful race against time, and it doesn’t end as optimistically as you would expect –especially if your idea of Egan’s fiction was shaped by his earliest novels rather than the more nuanced material he’s been writing in his short stories.

The best thing about Zendegi as compared to Egan’s latest Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence is that Egan has taken a step back from the abyss of incomprehensibility and delivered an accessible novel with credible human characters.  It feels a lot like Teranesia in that it allows Egan to dial down the speculation and develop a richer recognizable extrapolation of our present.  With its deep immersion in Iranian culture, Zendegi also suggests that Egan can write near-future globalized SF à la Ian McDonald.

Unfortunately, Zendegi also leaves itself open to more common criticism.  If Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence could use “I didn’t understand most of it” negative reviews like badges of honour, Zendegi won’t benefit so much from charges that it is short story material padded to novel length.  Focusing strictly on the SF elements, it’s possible to lose much of the novel’s first third, a good chunk of the redundant segments set in the Zendegi virtual world itself, and considerably shorten the remainder of the novel.  The resulting novella would feel a lot more energetic while delivering the same extrapolative charge; it would also feel closer to Egan’s recent short fiction than his novels.

While the finished results will please readers looking for either a more realistic take on the near-future of mind uploading or globally-aware genre fiction, Zendegi also carries a penalty by virtue of being published under the Egan brand name: It’s more timid, less fizzy, and nowhere near as interesting as much of his other books.  It is, in many ways, a wholly average SF novel.  Not bad, not fantastic; just ordinary.  This will be a relief to some, a disappointment to others, and maybe even both at the same time.

Schild’s Ladder, Greg Egan

Gollancz, 2001, 250 pages, £16.99 hc, ISBN 0-575-07068-4

Sometimes, there is no shame in saying that you’ve been beaten by a book.

I certainly feel like that after reading Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder. I may think of myself as a savvy hard-SF fan with a good understanding of science and a facility for technical jargon, but Egan has clearly bested me with this extrapolation of thirty-first century physics.

The central plot isn’t terribly complicated. First, the prologue describes how a far-future scientific experiment goes wrong and starts eating the very fabric of the cosmos. Schild’s Ladder then jump hundreds of years later, on a station perched at the frontier of this novo-vacuum’s continuing expansion. Aboard the station, two post-human factions: The Preservationists, trying to fight back against the expanding blight, and the Yielders, who are looking for an accommodation and a way to exploit this new set of circumstances. Stuff happens, discoveries are made, a trip is taken and soon enough, well… oh, there’s not much to spoil, but let’s still not spoil it.

If the plot is simple enough (and, to be truthful, not that different from a number of classic SF stories in which heroic scientists have to face an alien enigma) it’s the details that will make cry in confusion and beg for simpler novels. Open up a page at random, and you’re likely to read a line like “Once that was achieved, Tchicaya scribed a series of probes that would spread out laterally as well moving straight in, improving their changes of gaining a comprehensive picture of the Planck worms.” [P.187]

Uh-huh. Okay. Not bad, but imagine 250 pages of that and you’ll quickly reach for a romance novel in order to speed-read once more. Not content to play around with advanced physics, Schild’s Ladder boldly invents post-“Theory of Everything” physics that are to our understanding of the universe what super-string theory is to Newtonian physics. Ambitious, undoubtedly fascinating for the Nobel Prize crowd, but utterly baffling for even smart-ass readers such as myself.

But difficulty of comprehension doesn’t necessarily betray lack of enjoyment. Midway though the book, it struck me that even though I couldn’t understand half the jargon, I was swimming once more in the comfortable thought-space of hard-SF. Egan’s protagonists are scientists for whom the hunger of knowledge is all-powerful, and there’s a pleasant vibe to this kind of attitude that I was missing after so many hum-drum thrillers and pedestrian SF novels. What’s more, you eventually learn to tune out the most advanced sections of Egan’s prose, and simply extract whatever meaning you can from the plot-line surrounding the physics.

Interestingly enough for a writer whose short stories are usually better-rated than his longer fiction, several of Schild’s Ladder‘s best moments come in smaller portions. The opening novella isn’t bad, Protagonist Tchicaya’s shared childhood experience with Mariama is worth excerpting by itself and the final voyage is -though at the limit of intelligibility- almost worth another story. Even in the nuts-and-bolts linking scenes, Egan goes farther than anyone else, fiddling with acorporeal characters and their psychology as if it was just another thing. Never mind that other novelists (paging Richard K. Morgan) can devote entire novels to the very same throwaway ideas.

Ultimately, it’s the sense that Schild’s Ladder does things impossible to achieve in any other genre of expression but science-fiction that gives full meaning to the book. For someone to sit down and extrapolate far-future physics in sufficient details for readers to recoil in stunned incomprehension is nothing short of admirable. I have long maintained that science-fiction should first be defined by what it can do better than anything else, and this is the kind of novel, utterly cryptic to anyone not already well-versed in the genre, that best exemplifies that kind of thinking. Is it one of 2001’s best SF novels? I don’t think so. Is it one of 2001’s purest SF novels, though? Ah-ha.

It took me a while to get to this novel, and now that I have, I suddenly find myself at the end of Egan’s oeuvre so far: The already-mysterious author has almost completely stopped writing since 2001, devoting himself to the cause of Australian asylum-seekers. For hard-SF, this pause has been deeply felt; Egan continues to show signs of life (His web site is still regularly updated), but it’s an open bet as to when he’ll be back in bookstores. In the meantime, enjoy this novel as maybe the most advanced piece of diamond-hard SF he’s ever penned, and wonder if anything will ever top this. In this light, beating my head against this novel is nothing short of the ultimate compliment.

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…

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.

Permutation City, Greg Egan

Millennium, 1994 (1998 reprint), 310 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-75281-649-7

I usually read two books at the same time. One hardcover for reading at home or for where carrying hardcovers around isn’t too much of a problem. At the same time, I usually carry a paperback with me to read on the bus or whenever I find myself with a moment to spare. Given that I’ve been doing this for more that a while (we’re talking half a decade here…), I was convinced that there was scarcely any difference between my perception of a book read on the bus or at home. Looking at the paperback copy of Permutation City on my desk which I’m supposed to review today, I’m not so sure.

Permutation City is about a lot of things, but it really revolves around the concept that sometime in the future, humans will be able to be “copied” to electronic formats, which then live inside a VR environment somewhere on the Net.

Bah! Déjà vu! will say some. Already seen. Sawyer did it in the Nebula-Winning The Terminal Experiment.

Not so fast. Permutation City opens with a copy being activated, realizing that he’s a copy imprisoned in a computer and immediately reaching for the suicide button. Quite a contrast with Sawyer’s “oh yeah, cool!” approach. And, dare I say, somewhat more realistic.

(Please don’t interpret this as unkind words about The Terminal Experiment which, despite significant flaws, remains of the of best SF books of 1995.)

As usual, Greg Egan packs idea upon idea and the results is as exhilarating as it’s mind-bending. One can rest assured that every new Egan novel will be cracking with new concepts and nifty setpieces. Like his other novels, it’s a trip, and a heady one. Unfortunately, Permutation CIty suffers from one usual Egan tic, and an unusual one.

The usual tic is that by the end of the book, all laws are being rewritten, the action is quickly moving on the metaphysical plane and things simply don’t make sense any more. The good news are that Permutation City handles this breakthrough better than either Quarantine or Distress.

The bad news are that Permutation City seems to suffer from a slower beginning than Egan’s other novels. Despite the gripping opening set-piece described above, the first half of the book settles down in a fairly hum-drum pattern that is either very subtle, or uncharacteristically overwritten. (Or, of a philosophical bent seldom seen around here.) This impression of a novel that should have been tightened remains even after the action starts. (Other nitpick: “baling out”… urgh!)

Fortunately, the remainder of the novel brings up so many questions that readers are unlikely to feel cheated. Which brings us back to the paperback copy of Permutation City staring at me. I’ll admit that I wasn’t in my usual frame of mind while reading Permutation City (job interviews will do that to you). Who knows whether or not I would have read a hardcover edition with the same attitude? (Philanthropic readers who wish to contribute to this experiment are encouraged to email me…)

This hardcover/paperback theme turned even stranger if you consider that the hardcover novel I was reading at the time was James L. Halperin’s The First Immortal, a novel about immortality that uses “copies” in what is again a gosh-wow fashion. Egan’s approach, using the usual cautious SF skepticism, does seem considerably more realistic that Halperin’s. It’s probably another element of the considerable different between the two author’s approach: Egan is obviously writing SF shaped by previous SF.

For whatever reason, then, Permutation City didn’t grip me as strongly as Egan’s other novels. I reserve the privilege to re-read it again in the future and change my mind, while still encouraging everyone to grab whatever Egan they can locate. SF is terribly lucky, as a genre, to be able to claim such an audacious writer in its ranks. Let’s see where Egan goes next.

Distress, Greg Egan

Millennium, 1995, 343 pages, C$18.95 tpb, ISBN 1-85798-285-1

Greg Egan!

To hordes of discerning Hard-SF fans (how do you call a quantity of Hard-SF fans? A Mole? A Kilofan? A Clement? Never mind…), an almost-Pavlovian drooling reflex engages when hearing the name. Greg Egan is one of the most capable new writers of pure, undiluted Hard-SF. In a market cornered by fat fantasy trilogies, and media-SF derivates, this willingness to play with the net up is quite laudable.

Not only is Egan capable to write Hard-SF, but he’s also willing to tackle some of the biggest issues there are. His first three SF novels are concerned with cosmology, quantum realities, Theories of Everything, consciousness, and other not-quite-pedestrian subjects.

What makes reading Egan a blast is the apparently effortless idea-tossing found in his fiction: Almost every page contains a new surprising concept, and Egan seldom neglects to explore the consequence of his extrapolations. His stories also make heavy use of biology, a facet of science too often neglected by Hard-SF (usually identified with cold, dependably mathematic physics.) His short stories (collected in Axiomatic) garnered raves everywhere. Now, his novels are doing the same.

Distress begins with a bang, as a video-journalist witnesses the temporary resurrection of a murder victim by police authorities. The sequence is chillingly effective, and goes a long way to establish both the tone and the protagonist of the novel.

Soon enough, we get into the main story of the novel, which is a conference taking place on a man-made tropical country, dealing with the holy grail of modern physics: Theories of Everything. If the novel’s protagonist used of his influence to cover the event, he’ll soon discover that he’s up to his neck in shadowy dealings with entities whose goals are either laughable, or all-important.

And despite a few odd turns of plot, Egan manages to keep all of this pretty well balanced until the last hundred pages, where everything dissolves in a wave of intentionally confusing reversals. Egan is always stronger in beginnings than conclusions (especially when he makes up his mind to reformat the universe at the end of his novels), and Distress is no exception.

But as they say, the trip is half the voyage: Greg Egan has the too-rare ability to conjure up truly believable futures. Unlike other authors who limit their world-building to fancy cars and a sprinkling of neologisms, Egan can extrapolate like the best of them, and the result is -no other word for it- tasty.

In fact, culinary metaphors might be the most appropriate to discuss Distress. Like intricate hors-d’oeuvres, our appetite is whetted by the small details of the protagonist’s ordinary life before springing on us the main course; the trip to the conference. Egan’s take on 21st century theoretical physics makes up most of the nutritive content of the novel. Chef Egan puts too much sugar in his desserts, however, and the overall impression of the meal is marred by the too-rich endings.

Nevertheless, Distress is another success for Egan, and deserves to be celebrated by Hard-SF fans everywhere. It should be out shortly in US-paperback format so interested readers shouldn’t wait to grab it before long.