24 April 2008

Locus Magazine's Russell Letson reviews Greg Egan

from Locus Magazine, April 2008

Dark Integers and Other Stories, Greg Egan (Subterranean Press, 978-1-59606-155-2, $25.00, 232 pp, hc) March 2008.

Incandescence, Greg Egan (Gollancz 978-0-575-08162-8, £18.99, 488pp, hc) May 2008. (Night Shade Books, 978-1-59780-128-7, $24.95, 256pp, hc) May 2008.

A very welcome double shot of Greg Egan — a collection of five novelettes covering 13 years, and a new novel — demonstrates his range and his consistent focus on philosophical questions enabled by mathematical conjectures and the thought-experimental possibilities of various post-human conditions. The collection, Dark Integers, offers two pairs of related stories and a kind of coda. "Luminous" (1995) and "Dark Integers" (2007) play with the metaphysical implications of discontinuities in our systems of mathematical-logical reasoning — that, as Egan puts it in his Introduction, "the mathematics of ordinary numbers might be malleable" and that various apparently constant features of our reality "might turn out to be local quirks of our patch of the universe." What this leads to in "Luminous" is anything but a dry, Flatland-ish speculative fable. It opens with Bruno Costanzo on the receiving end of some ad-hoc hotel-room surgery as a bounty hunter tries to dig a data capsule out of his arm. Then, in fine future-thriller manner, it follows his efforts to get his payload crunched by the superduper computer called Luminous before any other thugs hired by a company with the intriguing name of Industrial Algebra can intercept him with extreme prejudice. The McGuffin at the heart (or in the left arm) of this melodrama is some highly exotic reasoning that might prove the existence of a mathematical and metaphysical "defect," "a fossil of primordial attempts to define the difference between truth and falsehood," which could in turn be used by IA to subvert anything from financial calculations to the fabric of physical nature itself. This weaponizable bit of Platonic idealism is validated when the inhabitants of the universe on the far side of the defect notice what must seem to them to be an attack and they reply directly through the offending mathematicians' nervous systems.

"Dark Integers" is set ten years after Bruno and his colleagues have mapped the defect and secretly established communication and made peace with the continuum on the far side, a whole universe that operates according to mathematics as alien — and toxic — to ours as ours is to theirs. When an independent researcher unwittingly lobs a logic-bomb across the metaphysical frontier, the hard-noses in the neighboring cosmos retaliate, and Bruno and company have to figure (as in calculate) a way of restoring balance and something like trust. Again, the quite effective melodrama plays against some nosebleed-inducing speculations about math, logic, and metaphysics that are both stories' reason for being.

"Riding the Crocodile" (2005) and "Glory" (2007) are set in the very far future of the Amalgam, a galaxy-spanning civilization that could be a development of the polities portrayed in Diaspora (reviewed in September 1997), "Wang's Carpets", and "The Planck Dive", but composed of every sort of naturally evolved or created-from-scratch ("de novo") intelligence imaginable. Technologies and social arrangements have converged to the point that all manner of sentient beings exist as software or embodied creatures or any combination of states, on planets or in physical habitats floating in the void or in software "scapes," for pretty much as long as anyone cares to keep going. With access to enormous computing power, vast and detailed knowledge of physical structures and processes, and a command of replication techniques that work right down to the subatomic level, the beings of the Amalgam have access to and understanding of nearly everything in the galactic disk, and eventually there is not much that hasn't been visited, catalogued, and analyzed, and not many projects that haven't been undertaken many times.

What keeps a thinking being amused in such an environment? In "Riding the Crocodile", Leila and Jasim are considering packing it in after 10,309 years together.

They had traveled to a dozen worlds and lived among a thousand cultures. They had educated themselves many times over, proved theorems, and acquired and abandoned artistic sensibilities and skills. They had not lived in every conceivable manner, far from it, but what room would there be for the multitude if each individual tried to exhaust the permutations for existence? They had no wish to... start cranking through some tedious enumeration of all the other people they might have been.

So they decide it's time to go — but first they wonder whether there might be some really "grand and audacious" project to put a period to their lives. They finally settle on an attempt to contact the Aloof, the beings that occupy the galaxy's crowded central bulge and have for a million years ignored all attempts at communication and gently repulsed all attempts to explore their territory. They determine to "camp at the gates of these elusive strangers, and try to arouse them from their indifference," and in time (millennia), meticulous observation, considerable ingenuity, and the eventual cooperation of billions of other Amalgam-dwellers produce a map of a communication network in the Aloof. Then comes the ultimate adventure: the couple send themselves through the network as "unencrypted... data that anyone can read, anyone can copy, anyone can alter or corrupt."

Leila and Jasim's goal is not just to explore a new realm but to find a fitting end to a long, long existence. "Glory," which seems to be set at an earlier stage of the Amalgam's history, celebrates the centrality of curiosity and the joys of discovery in a different key. A pair of Amalgam xenomathematicians travel to the system of the space-faring but not star-traveling Noudah in order to investigate the remains of an even earlier species, the Niah, whose artifacts are excavated but not much valued by the locals. When Joan and Anne explain that they have crossed interstellar space to study the mathematics of a dead civilization, the response is puzzlement spiced with suspicion, since the Noudah see themselves as dynamic Spreaders, the opposite of wimpy Seekers like the long and deservedly extinct Niah. This points to the conflict that powers the plot: the Noudah cannot get past their own competitive territoriality (which Joan explains to her local minder is a stage the species is going through), and the discovery of what the explorers see as a mathematical treasure triggers a crisis that points up how different are Seeker and Spreader attitudes.

The citizens of the Amalgam are able to build and configure their value and emotional systems, their entire minds, in any manner they can imagine. "Oceanic" (1998), on the other hand, is all about systematically deconstructing the core of a personality (or what is believed to be the core), and examining what remains when the demolition is complete. The boy Martin experiences a religious conversion that becomes the central fact of his life, but he needs to keep adjusting his understanding of his faith as he matures and struggles with sex (an interestingly complicated process in this far future), relationships, and his studies of the native biology of his extensively modified colony world. This is the thematic realm of, say, "Appropriate Love" or "Reasons to Be Cheerful," in which purely subjective, unreasoned states of mind are interrogated, sometimes to the point of disappearing up their own assumptions. Martin's visceral, unshakeable certainty of the love of the semi-divine colonial ancestor Beatrice — "like a flame inside my skull, radiating warmth through the darkness behind my eyes" — remains with him even while his religion's rationalizations and theological explanations are stripped away by education and mature experience. Eventually, though, he has to confront the roots of the primal experience itself, and the trajectory of faith ends in a place satisfyingly familiar to anyone who has read the earlier epistemological stories.

What sets "Oceanic" off from, say, "Appropriate Love" is its setting, the planet Covenant, colonized at least 20,000 years earlier by post-human, un-bodied "Angels" whose original motives and actions have been obscured and mystified and mythologized, but who left behind a planet transformed by the "ecopoiesis" and who also worked interesting changes on the sexual machinery of their redesigned descendants. There's an entire novel implied by the distorted fragments of backstory that Martin turns over and over in his efforts to understand his own nature, and hints of a war-in-heaven over how Covenant should be colonized.

Despite the speculative metaphysics and the miraculous technologies, these stories retain the feel of hard SF, thanks to the rigor with which Egan approaches his materials. On the conventional-science/tech side, the stories respect the light-speed barrier and construct ingenious ways of maintaining a galactic-scale civilization. The first three pages of "Glory", for example, lay out how the "molecular seeds" that reconstruct Joan and Anne and their spacecraft cross interstellar space. All it takes is godlike computing power, engineering expertise, and lifespans that can handle the time-scales required to move matter and information (which are, in any case, practically interchangeable) across huge distances. It's not magic, only magical.

But my personal delight remains Egan's head-on engagement with the philosophical questions that arise from his scenarios. One set of questions is represented by the Seeker-Spreader motif of "Glory": what drives a species to its particular way-of-being, and how deeply inscribed is it in their "nature"? What, in fact, is "nature" once sentience and choice are part of the equation? There are versions of these questions for individuals as well, as the actions of Leila and Jasim and the transformative experience of Martin show. What makes existence worthwhile, especially when everything from basic survival to every imaginable kind of "self-fulfillment" is available for the taking? What would you be if you really could be anything — and how long would you want to be that? It makes a fella dizzy, looking down into that abyss, but it's more exhilarating than scary.

Incandescence extends both the background and the thematics of "Riding the Crocodile" and throws in an exotic environment and its inhabitants for good measure, along with a scenario right out of Last and First Men or Star Maker, viewed in closeup rather than Stapledonian long-shot. In alternating chapters, two sets of investigators work on puzzles that are bound to converge. 300,000 years after "Riding," another pair of Amalgam citizens sets off to search the galaxy's central bulge for the source of a DNA-bearing meteor whose existence has been revealed, with no other comment, by the Aloof. Meanwhile, somewhere in the bulge, two aliens carefully analyze and map the nature of their world, the Splinter, a strange, rocky environment bathed in the radiation of the Incandescence. Rakesh and Parantham of the Amalgam command all the computational and material science of their multimillion-year-old civilization; Splinterites Roi and Zak use springs and rocks and wires to make basic measurements and painfully puzzle out the nature of their environment by means of mathematics.

For both quests, what starts out abstract or academic becomes practical. Rakesh and Parantham trace the meteor's path back to a cataclysmic collision between an inhabited world and a neutron star, and find evidence that the inhabitants managed to devise a means of surviving. They go looking for the wreckage or any conceivable survivors, which, unsurprisingly, takes them to a functioning ancient habitat that has managed to remain functional for 50 million years. In the Splinter, an event they call the Jolt suggests to Roi and Zak and some colleagues that the survival of their world depends on the arcane measurements and calculations they have found so absorbing as mathematical models. The two story-lines remain separate through most of the novel, and even when they do meet, there are questions about how they will interact, practically and ethically. It makes for a curious and effective kind of suspense.

Speaking of curiosity — something we might as well call curiosity (the characters', not the reader's) is the thematic key to the book. Rakesh is a restless spirit — "Our ancestors have sucked the Milky Way dry," he says in the first scene. "We were born too late; there's nothing left for us." He determined early in life (after only a thousand years) to leave home in search of something more worthwhile than mere tourism, and the chance to poke around in the Aloof seems what he's been looking for. In the beginning, Roi and Zak are the square pegs of the Splinter's culture, which is organized into semi-permanent groups instinctively bound together by practical work. Zak is the more profound oddball, a solitary eccentric obsessed with understanding and quantifying the various kinds of motion he observes in the near-weightlessness of the Splinter's Null Zone. Roi is just curious enough to help him with his measurements, and then she's hooked and becomes his teammate in research. When the Jolt comes, it shakes up more than the Splinter's orbit; it gets the attention of large numbers of its people, transforming its society from one sleepily absorbed in routine work to one focused on solving geometrical and mathematical problems, anticipating possible disasters, and inventing solutions to them. There's more to the change than cooperating on a new set of tasks. At one point, Roi looks back at "the uncomplicated bliss of cooperation" and "changeless routine" and realizes that she has developed a side of her personality that

could only claim success now from something new: a revelation, a contradiction, a twist that turned their old guesses inside out. If they ever did reach the end of the mysteries of weight and motion... she would welcome the return of ease and safety like everyone else, but she did not know how that second part of her would go on living.

Various puzzles are solved (though one remains) and thematic threads are tied to some of those solutions in an ingenious manner. My only caveat is directed to the mathematically challenged: parts of the Splinter side of the story trace the process of figuring out the nature of that environment in some detail. My personal intellectual glass ceiling meant that I was incapable of following that part of the adventure, but that did not keep me from being fully engaged by the rest of this book's curious combination of cool rationality and philosophical adventure. Egan has been working these veins since "Dust", Permutation City, and Diaspora, and I say that his hand has not lost its cunning nor his mind its passion.

Footnote: For those who, like me, develop the toothache when attempting to follow not just mathematical reasoning but even well-formed verbal descriptions of it, Egan has posted some explanations and visual aids on his website — but since it gives away the answers to some riddles, those who prefer to do their own figuring-out are warned to save this for an après-book treat. (http://gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/INCANDESCENCE/Incandescence.html)

Read more! This is one of over three dozen reviews from the April 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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