(2008) Greg Egan, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 300pp, ISBN 0-575-08163-5
It has been seven years since Egan's last novel, so to say this has been long awaited is something of an understatement. Of course, it has given Gollancz the opportunity to re-issue his previous eight books (seven novels and a collection of shorts) with similar covers to that on this new offering. I'm sure they'll look lovely on your shelves, though I'm not convinced that if you start here you'll necessarily want to pick up the rest.. You should though, especially if you like your SF good and 'hard'. As the New Scientist quote has it, "The Universe may be stranger than we can imagine, but it's going to have a tough time outdoing Egan." Like all authors he has his strengths and weaknesses and, in some respects, his work epitomises the perceived pros and cons of SF writing in general. SF was and still is the 'literature of ideas' and, consequently, plots (at least in hard SF) tend towards the central puzzle rather than, say, characterisation. Egan here certainly concentrates on the situation (how to survive in a deteriorating orbit near a neutron star close to galactic centre) rather than the characters. Indeed, Egan has often been criticised for having 'cardboard cut-out' characters, though I will happily defend him on that front: why should anyone expect even 'human' characters in the future to act the way that we do now? While we are short-lived (relatively speaking) it is unsurprising that we should all too often fall prey to, and express, our emotional and volatile passions; under which circumstances 'characters' will be written and explored accordingly. But Egan is writing about beings (albeit some of which may have started 'life' as organic humans) which can live for millennia in various organic or inorganic bodies, or even as data within a virtual reality, so why should they seem like us? Having said that, I do agree that sometimes Egan's characters do leave something to be desired, and I perfectly understand his critics. In the end, of course, it is up to you, dear reader: if you like hard SF and do not worry too much about the characters, then Egan is the man for you; if you like your SF, er, soft (as it were), then you should probably give him a miss. Of course, you may like both, but you can dig yourself out of that hole...
So, to the plot. One million years from now the lifeforms that originated from DNA, including humans, form a meta-civilisation called the Amalgam which inhabits most of the galactic disc. However, in the core live the Aloof who deliberately have no contact with the Amalgam; but the Aloof do allow citizens of the Amalgam to cross their territory in the form of data, by way of a 'short cut' for travellers. Then the Aloof send out a message that they have discovered within their space a meteor which contains DNA fragments. Rakesh and Parantham of the Amalgam journey deep within the core to solve the mystery of how the DNA got there. Over time they discover that there must have been a world of organic beings that was destroyed, and soon they are searching for any survivors. Meanwhile, those survivors, including Roi and Zak, now live on the Splinter, a fragment of the homeworld in orbit around a neutron star, under threat of destruction on two fronts. Firstly their orbit is deteriorating and the Splinter is falling toward the neutron star, and secondly the neutron star itself is ripping apart another nearby star (all stars being 'nearby' in the core, relatively speaking) and the infalling matter from that star is buffeting the Splinter. Can Roi and Zak teach themselves and the other survivors enough physics to save the Splinter? And can Rakesh and Parantham discover their whereabouts in time to be of any help?
Notwithstanding the criticisms of Egan's characters cited above, while Rakesh and Parantham are somewhat wooden, Roi and Zak are pretty well-rounded. However, there's no denying that the emphasis in this book is the good ol' SF sensawonder, with a hard SF tour of conditions at the heart of our galaxy, and Egan has a maestro's touch when it comes to explaining how the Splinter's inhabitants can teach themselves physics, even under extreme conditions. As a science-loving SF fan I have to say that I have got no problems with this book (barring a certain amount of disappointment at the end, in the (hopefully) positive sense of wanting more). So this is highly recommended, bearing in mind my comments at the beginning.
Also see Jonathan's review of Incandescence.
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