Friday, February 12, 2010

Recent Reading: Oceanic

by Greg Egan

I have a considerable fondness for Greg Egan's work, dating back to fairly soon after he started selling to Interzone, but it sometimes seems that his flavour of hard SF is like rock and roll; it works best in short form. He needs to just punch you in the face and then stop. Sprawling concept albums may have a certain technical interest value, but they're not the point of the exercise.

So when Oceanic appeared, it went on my wish list (despite the fact that it contained a number of stories I'd already read), and duly showed up in my Christmas stocking. It took me a little while to get through it, thanks to various distractions (but then, one can easily forgive oneself that with a short story collection), and yes, it's taken me a while to get around to blogging about it, but anyway...

An obvious thing about Egan's stories is that a lot of them feature a generic Egan narrator/protagonist: intelligent, humanistic, highly ethical, maybe deracinated, arguably a bit chilly, sometimes romantically engaged but not exactly demonstrative about it - as much of a standardised construct as H.P.Lovecraft's similarly intellectual protagonists, but younger and (of course) more optimistic. There are a few of them in this book, but fortunately for its variety, there are some other character types in lead roles too. I've already commented on the first story, "Lost Continent", elsewhere after its earliest appearance, and I'm afraid that it still doesn't quite work for me, but it still shows a hugely admirable sympathy for the underdog (motivated by Egan's own work for good causes), and by taking the much-mauled underdog as its lead character, it avoids the sense of trad-hard-SF competent man nonsense that can become so tiresome after a little while. Likewise, the last story in the collection, "Oceanic", may feature a highly competent scientist as its protagonist-narrator, and may be rather schematic in its extended critique of religion, but at least it gives that scientist a serious and difficult journey by way of a plot. One gets the feeling that, while Egan still has no time for superstition, he is developing a little more sympathy for the emotional and social complications that take people there.

Between those two, there are ups, downs, and oddities. "Dark Integers" is an oddity in that it's a sequel to one of Egan's best past exercises ("Luminous", to be found in the like-titled collection), but I rather wish it wasn't, because that's what makes it into a down; it isn't actually bad in its sketch of unwanted responsibilities and duelling universes, but in its details, it sucks most of the beauty out of the earlier story. "Luminous" had a computer built of light, and beings of uncanny power and unknowable personality living in the shimmers of a breeze and the twist of a cloud, on Earth but also on the far side of a flaw in mathematics; in "Dark Integers", the technology is less wondrous, and it turns out that those beings are a lot like us, can talk like (and to) us and play politics like us, and the other reality where they live is just a sort of parallel universe with its own planets and suchlike. When the meeting between two worlds ends on a slightly but not overly downbeat note, less seems to have been lost than might have been the case.

"Crystal Nights", which I'd seen before in Interzone, begins with a peculiar dummy, as one of Egan's standard lead figures comes in for a few pages and promptly refuses to play any further part in the story, because it's largely about the ethics of creation, and she's too ethical. It makes a point, I guess, but not too well. (I'm not sure that beginning a story with "More caviar?" to establish someone's levels of wealth is too slick, either.) After that, well, it's a pretty good Egan story, although as so often, Egan is worrying at ethical questions that only (currently) exist in his fictional world. The line about how rival billionaire transhumanists might end up, "throwing grey goo around like monkeys throwing turds", is funny, though, and the story has a certain left-field optimism to it.

"Steve Fever", on the other hand, shows a kind of posthumanist breakthrough gone badly awry, without collapsing into total catastrophe - a sort of Blood Music where the microscopic brains have less smarts but more built-in ethics. The question of where desperation and the survival instinct might lead with a sufficiently advanced science is certainly interesting. "Induction", on the other hand, is in danger of being a bit dull, if only because it features one of Egan's simpler optimistic futures, short of either sensawunda or conflict - having been written for a special issue of the academic journal Foundation, and hence for free, may or may not be a consideration here.

"Singleton" is another one I remember from Interzone, and here we are definitely back with one of those Egan protagonists - someone who can get worked up about existential problems arising from quantum physics. The vague possibility that our hero may actually be mad as a fish doesn't slow the plot down, and the plot eventually expands from near-future plausibility to transhuman wildness, spilling off a character who then, very oddly, shows up again in the next story.

This is "Oracle", which has the look of a tale dreamed up after reading too many biographies of a couple of 20th century figures - with those figures renamed for arcane reasons (and placed in an alternate history). I don't know enough about these people to judge all the details properly, but I'm not sure that Egan quite catches the tone of mid-century English discourse or the manners of the mid-century British intelligence community right. The not-Alan Turing certainly looks a bit too much like another stock Egan hero; maybe I shouldn't have expected Derek Jacobi, but the Turing of Breaking the Code would probably have been more interesting. I feel even less qualified to comment on the not-C.S.Lewis, but he has me somewhat convinced most of the time; however, I really can't see a Lewis-analogue, having sought to engage an opponent in public debate on a crucial matter of moral philosophy, first choosing to make the debated question something rather tangential  to his great concern, and second, basing the thrust of his argument on something like Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.

Incidentally, can anyone identify who the "dark-haired young man" who coaches not-Lewis on Godel is meant to be? I assume that one should be able to guess, but I haven't a clue.

"Border Guards", the next story in the book, is yet another Interzone story, featuring an imaginary game that may appeal to physics geeks, set in a universe that's been made more hospitable to humanity than mere quotidian reality. It's interesting in a way, but it's minor key stuff. "Riding the Crocodile", on the other hand, is set in a Utopian future of our galaxy which also features in Egan's most recent novel, and raises questions in a prequel-ish fashion. However, its problem is its unconvincing depiction of a society of immortals. Years, decades, centuries pass while a couple of people sit around in the ultratech equivalent of a tiny cottage, doing some rather limited academic research, with no apparent sign of needing broader cultural inputs or other company, no emotional evolution, like a couple of postgrads locking themselves up for a week to crack a thorny calculus problem. Perhaps they've adjusted themselves or just gradually adapted to this sort of life, but if so, the setting is far more dehumanised than I think Egan wants it to seem. It's a problem that his Utopian futures do suffer from; I fear that the idea of depicting a believable culture of well-rounded immortals in convincing depth would seem to him like a crass distraction from the really cool physics, so we may be stuck with these pale cyphers.

Last off, "Glory" and "Hot Rock" are set in the same future, the galaxy of the "Amalgam", but feature visits to less-developed planets where locals have stuff of interest to Amalgam society. (The first visit is accomplished by a display of technology so egregiously sophisticated and refined that it tips over into silliness.) Both involve discoveries of potentially galactic significance, but both are actually interesting because they feature exercises in the imagination and depiction of alien worlds. Not surprisingly, Egan turns out to be pretty good at this, even if the worlds may seem a bit sparse and schematic. I was sometimes made rather unhappy when his plots dragged my attention back from his aliens. Very old-school skiffy of me, I fear.

So - not prime Egan, then. But even sub-prime Egan is more Egan than anything else. Still, perhaps he needs to take a break from the benign, enervated, post-human futures that aren't going to convince any of the unconverted, and allow himself a bit more of the moral passion that features in "Lost Continent", the ambiguity of "Steve Fever", or the world-building of "Hot Rock". Egan has the more-than-potential to be one of the greats, but he may need to hold back on the (atheist) preaching and actually allow himself to be a little bit more of a science fiction storyteller.

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