It’s official, I really like science fiction author Greg Egan!
Egan is among the modern science fiction authors; his first SF work, the short story Artifact, was published in 1983, so he’s been writing SF for about 28 years. Like many science fiction authors with a science or technical education, he writes non-fiction as well.
And here’s the thing: If you like your science fiction hard, you want to know about Greg Egan! He writes SF as hard as any I know. For instance, consider a novel (Incandescence) in which a key plot thread involves alien beings discovering (Einstein’s) General Relativity in a completely different way than Einstein did. He reminds me of Hal Clement on several levels, particularly so in the novel I just cited, as part of it is told from the aliens’ point of view (a common device in Clement’s work).
According to Wikipedia, Clement was the “leader of the hard science fiction sub-genre.” I would go along with that. There was a lesser-known author, George O. Smith, who wrote some extremely hard SF back in the day of radio tubes (the 40s). Venus Equilateral, a collection of short stories, is a must-read if you’re a high-tech SF fan, especially if you have any background in radio or electronics. Communications in space. With radio tubes! But I digress. My point is that Greg Egan could easily be the modern leader of hard SF.
And while I’ve only read two of his novels, a couple short stories and parts of his website, I’m hooked. It’s not just the ultra-hard SF; I like his writing and his characters, and I really like his ideas. Some of his stories involve alternate realities with different physics than ours. Others involve extremely advanced civilizations far in the future (for example, when we’ve conquered the galaxy and transcended our physical bodies to live as software).
Recently I read his novel, Distress. It was so engaging I read the entire 454 pages in one day (even missed the start of the ballgame). It’s hard not to get hooked on a novel that begins:
“All right. He’s dead. Go ahead and talk to him.”
That’s an opening that begs for explanation!
It turns out that the mystery behind those lines only serves to introduce the story’s main character. This opening scene involves a bit of science fiction that doesn’t have much direct connection with the main plot; it’s not unlike the opening scene of any James Bond movie.
Yet the level of hard science detail and imagination behind this “throw away” scene is impressive, and it’s what makes Egan’s work so attractive to geeks such as I.
I’m not going to explore the book’s plot; you can get a bit of that from its Wikipedia article (admittedly a scant description) or from Mr. Egan’s site (which also doesn’t have much plot detail). Better yet, just read it and let it unfold. The Wiki article does at least touch on that this book is no mere adventure. As with all really good science fiction, the adventure is just wallpaper to the social commentary.
For one example, in the novel’s future there are five recognized genders among humans, and Egan introduces the neo-pronouns ve, ver and vis (for he, she, her and his) to accommodate gender-free speech. I couldn’t help but remember a high school English teacher who offered the class an instant A for the year to anyone who could come up with decent, useable gender-free pronouns. I wonder if he would have accepted Egan’s?
There are some other parts of the book I want to mention. The first concerns the role of technology in modern society:
“It was a technical advance worth communicating, worth explaining, worth demystifying. … Once people ceased to understand how the machines around them actually functioned, then the world they inhabited began to dissolve into an incomprehensible dreamscape. Technology moved beyond control, beyond discussion, evoking only worship or loathing, dependence or alienation. Arthur C. Clarke had suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic…”
While the novel takes place in the future, many people today have no idea how most of the technology that fills their world actually works. No idea at all. It’s not like having some vague idea about how a car engine works (and I imagine many people don’t). It’s seeing your cell phone or computer or TV as—literally—indistinguishable from a magical device.
Another part I want to remember considers the difference between religious and scientific pursuit. A character poses the question, ‘If modern human culture was wiped out, and the human race had to start fresh, what kinds of religious and scientific structures would be build?” That character goes on to suggest that the religious structures would likely differ considerably from those today. One proof of this might be the differences among modern and past religions. On the other hand, the scientific structures would likely be very similar to what we have today. Mathematics, for example, is a universal language once the meanings behind the specific symbols are communicated.
The author’s point, obviously, is that science is based on the real world, and therefore all scientific structure converges on that reality. Religious structures, however, are deemed purely social inventions, and their structure depends on local social viewpoints.
If we do live in a godless universe, then the above is certainly true. If we don’t, then one presumes that religious structures would tend to converge on their reality. And by one account, you can argue they do: As I’ve mentioned before, all religions seem to me to share the twin ideas that (a) there is more to life than all this and (b) what you do in life, how you are, matters. I might also argue the human tendencies to feel love and awe also reveal the fingerprint of something mystical.
Regardless, science does have the important and progressive feature of converging on the real world over time. Eventually phlogiston and epicycles and mysterious Pioneer accelerations reveal their incorrectness. It turns out that neutrinos do not go faster than light (not that anyone actually thought they did)!
Egan’s background in science gives his work a solid hard-sf foundation that I love. As I mentioned above, Incandescence deals with the invention of General Relativity! How cool is that? (If you’re an über-geek, it’s mega-cool, even giga-cool.) Distress involves the discovery of the “TOE” (Theory Of Everything) and what happens when you discover such a thing.
I will say that in the final chapters the scope of the book expands in a way that I have a little trouble with. Just not a fan of that sort of thing, I guess. Still, for any hard-sf fan, Distress, and Egan’s work in general: Two Thumbs Up!