(1997) Greg Egan, Millenium, £6.99, pbk, 367pp, ISBN 0-75280-925-3
Egan's latest novel is in the tradition of future histories such as Stapledon's Last and First Men. In Egan's cosmology, there are three branches of evolution from present day humans: there are 'exuberent' (genetically modified) and 'static' (unmodified) humans, gleisner robots (conscious embodied AIs) and conscious disembodied software, who inhabit virtual environments known as polises. The three groups distrust each other, but there is peace and stability.
The story mainly focusses on citizens of the Konishi polis who discover a threat to the remaining humans from a gamma ray burster. The mystery of why the binary star that produced the burst collapsed so quickly leads the main characters into exploration of the galaxy (the diaspora of the title), the discovery of alien life, and ultimately a 5-dimensional universe dual to our own.
Diaspora is typical Egan, which is to say that the ideas are wonderful and plentiful, and the description of complex processes and discoveries is both convincing and exciting: the first section, telling the story of the birth and development of Yatima, a polis citizen, is a remarkable piece of SF in itself. One of Egan's greatest strengths is his ability to use the language and concepts of current science (in Diaspora this is mostly the extremely difficult concepts of topology and higher dimensional geometry) to give a deeply convincing feel to what are often quite shop-worn tropes of SF, such as wormholes and faster than light travel.
On the other hand, Egan's plotting and characterisation remain relatively weak. He is capable of writing plausible characters, particularly when he's dealing with those of us on the nerd continuum, and I suspect that's because that is what he is like too. For precisely that reason, he is neither willing nor (probably) able to take a great interest in the minutiae of his characters' emotions.
Fortunately, as few of the characters in Diaspora are human, the lack of a strong emotional tone is relatively unimportant. Unfortunately, Egan's plotting is also straight out of ark, and Diaspora is ultimately just a shaggy dog story, with the a McGuffin powered story engine (hunt the theory of gamma ray bursters) that is resolved with the shameless use of an (almost literal) deus ex machina.
In a sense, this is science fiction at its purest: Egan has a supreme ability to write about scientific ideas in a mind boggling way, and a pedestrian talent in the other main areas of storytelling - you either enjoy his novels for the ideas or not at all. I enjoyed this one.
PS. Egan's website at www.gregegan.net is very impressive, and contains a lot of interesting background to Diaspora.
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