Fiction Reviews


(2009) Greg Egan, Gollancz £12.99, trdpbk, 490 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08652-4

By my count this is Egan's second collection of shorts (though I could be wrong) with his first being Luminous back in 1998, so this second one in just a gnat's knee over a decade is not too bad going. If you know Egan then you will know what to expect and in this regard this collection does not disappoint: ultra-hard SF pure and simple.   Yes, there is technobable but then again there is genuine science and Egan has the knack of getting you nearly all the way there with the real thing before slipping you a dash of fictional science, so that the sense-of-wonder he provides not only often seems to make sense but could actually happen given sufficient technical advancement. OK, so Egan is not that hot on story structure and narrative drive, but then that is a bit like saying that in gastronomy terms a T-bone steak lacks the subtlety of nouvelle cuisine: if you want flavoursome tidbits then go nouvelle, if you want your great hunger to be satiated then go for the T-bone. You know what you get with Egan and that is SF on a grand scale: SF that either relates to ultra-advanced technology, or spanning universes, or is a perspective of far off culture so far removed from our own that ours seems the alien one. Egan writes for the scientist who enjoys the 'science' in 'science fiction' and not for those (for example) into the motivations of well-rounded characters: there are other writers for that especially in mundane literature. Fortunately there are loads of us into the 'science' in 'science fiction' and the man sells well.

I have to say that on reading collection that with a few of the stories I had an uncomfortable sense of déjà vous and then I realised of course that they had appeared in previous anthologies (including a few 'Best of Year' type collections as well as in the original SF magazines). Here Gollancz (for some reason) puts the copyright details of date and source of the stories' original publication at the back, and not the front, of the book: I mention it now if you have yet to read this volume in case you miss it.

Oh, and the cover is in the new Egan-branded livery that Gollancz designed for the author last year when they re-released his back list.

As for the stories themselves we have:-

Lost Continent in which political refugees attempt to reach the ultimate sanctuary, but will they be welcome?

Dark Integers sees us return to 'Luminous' (the story that appeared in the collection of the same title) in which life forms in the universe with a different mathematics. These life forms mistake the work of a human mathematician as an attack of their reality and so they retaliate...

Crystal Nights. One way to develop new science and science products might be to create an artificial universe in a computer with speed time and then see what evolves. If you generate a technological civilization then you can use their technology in the real world. However what happens once the civilization realises the nature of its continuum...?

Steve Fever. When a biomedical treatment becomes a disease then anyone can become infected.

Induction sees a novel type of space exploration that could go on and on and...

Singleton having a child when you are unable to is a poser unless you can create a genuine artificial intelligence but what happens if you decide that true sentience is hardwired into the very nature of the multiverse?

Oracle. A scientist gets a helping hand from the future but this raises philosophical questions...

Border Guards. Living with god-like technology in the far future and the immortality that that entails is fantastic. But what if there was someone who remembers what it was like to be mortal and suffer?

Riding the Crocodile. This is the first of three stories in this collection that relates to the Amalgam civilization from Egan's 2008 novel Incadescence. The Amalgam is Egan's equivalent to Iain Bank's 'Culture' when in the far future several intelligences have advanced to form a single amalgamated high-tech civilization occupying the Galaxy's spiral arms. However the Galaxy's central bulge can not be visited as probes are returned: the bulge is occupied by another advanced civilization that nobody has met and which is known as 'the Aloof'. In 'Riding the Crocodile' two Amalgam citizens try to see if they can learn more about the Aloof.

Glory. Two Amalgam archaeologists have to penetrate a primitive (21st or 22nd century Earth equivalent) civilization as previously there was an earlier, ancient and now extinct, civilization whose remains show they had a remarkable approach to mathematics. The problem is that the planet is in a state of super-power confrontation and they may just be a little suspicious of astronauts from far away...

Hot Rock. Amalgam explorers come across a world between the stars, far from any sun, and – it transpires – with intelligent life...

Oceanic. Colonists from Earth thousands of years in the future have forgotten the detail of their roots and indeed they have biologically markedly changed. Their belief systems, especially theology, are open to be challenged. This won the Hugo for best novella in 1999: which says more about the Hugo than the story as for my money 'Dark Integers', 'Crystal Nights' and 'Riding the Crocodile' are far stronger stories but 'Oceanic' might have attracted the Hugo vote (I am unscientifically guessing) because the US more religious than secular Britain.

So there you have it, a collection that is typically Egan and his fans will not be disappointed.

Jonathan Cowie

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