(2008) Greg Egan, Gollancz, £18.99 / £12.99, hrdbk / trd pbk, 272 pp,
ISBN 978-0-575-0-8162-8 / 978-0-575-0-8163-5
It is the far future, a million years from now, and the Galaxy is divided between those civilization in the Amalgam who occupy the spiral arms and the Aloof who occupy the galactic core. There is little contact between the two. Then a citizen of the Amalgam gets the chance to enter the Aloof's space to help them solve a small mystery concerning a meteor that has DNA (we suspect the Aloof are not a DNA based group of species/sentients).
Meanwhile life goes on in the 'Splinter'. The Splinter is a semi-transparent world set in what is called the 'incandescence' that provides those in the Splinter with energy and some raw materials. However those in the Splinter do not really know the true nature of their world. Then one of them makes some observations and comes to some interesting deductions. Unfortunately with these comes the realization that life on the Splinter is threatened.
Greg Egan is of course well known for his ultra-hard SF and that he has been at the fore of this SF subset since his first novels in the early 1990s. By my reckoning this is only his second novel of the 21st century and it is a right cracker. His portrayal of a Galaxy divided and life that somehow operates on both real and deep time is heady and very Egan (cf. Schild's Ladder). Equally his picture of the simple life in the Splinter is as exotic. For me one of the fascinating aspects of this novel is the way the protagonists in the Splinter invent for themselves calculus in order to elucidate the nature of their environs. Of course along the way they have to sort out what is in effect Newton's Laws of motion as well as general relativity. This is a high wire for the author to tread: it could so easily have become too complex and boring. Yet Greg Egan succeeds and incidentally demonstrates to the reader -- if any demonstration be needed -- that mathematics will be the language of first contact even if both parties acquired the dictionary by completely different means.
One thing I do not like doing in reviews is to unwrap carefully packaged novels, yet I do have one question. Within SF themes do tend to re-occur. One such is life within a small community. The community in this case is the Splinter. Of course there is nothing wrong with drawing on SF rich history of themes, but in this case I do wonder whether Greg Egan got at least a modicum of inspiration for one aspect from Harry Harrison's Captive Universe (1969)? Well that's my tease for genre buffs out of the way.
With Incandescence Egan's imagination continues to dazzle and distil the sense of wonder that makes SF such a joy. If you like your SF real hard then you'll simply love this one: it's as solid as the genre gets.
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