OR: Luminous

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #20:-


Greg Egan

Millennium hb, 295pp, £16.99

Science fiction has always prided itself on its sense of wonder, but the criteria have changed. In the good old days (Before Hawking) mile long battlewagons hurled death rays at each other across the black immensity of space, and the manifest destiny of the feisty little bipeds from planet Earth was to conquer the universe, no matter how many alien carapaces we had to crack in the process. Nowadays the aliens are possibly of more concern to the ufology subculture, while understanding the universe, and as first step understanding ourselves, has come to replace the idea of conquest as a mission statement, with bright, shiny scientific theories of life, the universe and everything providing the essential golly, gosh, wow factor. As a character states in a Greg Egan story, ‘I’m here for the physics.’

Australian Egan is at the cutting edge of today’s hard sf, a writer whose dexterity at juggling the principles of quantum physics and nanotechnology is undoubted, and whose wilder theoretical flights of fancy can be daunting to even the most seasoned genre reader. Put bluntly (and certainly not meant as criticism), Egan is a writer who forces you to think and to think hard. His books are not the sort you take to the beach for a little light reading while you soak up the rays. But he is a writer  who rewards effort, who opens up whole new and fascinating realms of possibility. The nature of reality, the malleability of human nature, the existence of free will are concerns central to his fiction and the ten stories, initially published in Interzone and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine between 1993 and 1998, that make up this collection reflect such preoccupations.

As with the old time sf the stories sometimes suffer for lack of any human dimension, or rather the human dimension can seem like a clumsy narrative device tacked on to a piece of scientific hoopla, something the writer regards as a necessary evil. An example of this is the title story, ‘Luminous’, the name of a giant computer used in a battle for control of reality between two rival systems of mathematics, but before we can get to grips with this fascinating idea there are some sub-James Bond espionage games to be gone through, a kind of divertissement for the benefit of those who can’t take the hard stuff neat. Similarly in ‘The Planck Dive’ you get the impression that Egan is champing at the bit to discuss the physics of a black hole and begrudges the effort of constructing a story around the concept. One character, a travelling bard of sorts who has come to record what is taking place for posterity, is shot down for falsifying the hard evidence in an attempt to create an archetypal narrative. Moral: we should all be there for the physics.

The best stories are those in which the human element is paramount, so neatly interwoven with the science as to be inextricable and, while individual stories might not always hit the mark, Egan is probably better than anyone at exploring the impact of radical new technology. ‘Cocoon’, which looks at the social, ethical and emotional implications of a scientific development that could eradicate homosexuality, neatly leading the reader to question his own attitudes, is Egan at his best and a gripping demonstration of the genre’s potential. ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ presents the case of a man who, in the wake of a childhood illness, can never experience pleasure or happiness, then cleverly turns it around to query the validity of all emotion. Belief, or rather the existential need to believe while recognising that all certainty is built on shifting sand, is a subject Egan returns to again and again. ‘Chaff’ sees a man exposed to a drug that gives him the opportunity to become the person he really wants to be, but compelled to affirm his existing personality. In ‘Silver Fire’ a doctor following the path of a ferocious new illness stumbles across a counter culture that elevates ascientific values, and is thus forced to reconsider her own adherence to the idea of a thoroughly rational, materialistic world.

Recommended to those who enjoy intelligent, thought provoking sf.

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