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"Any sufficiently advanced technology becomes a Greg Egan story."
-- Clarke's Fourth Law.
(I don't see why Arthur should be the only Clarke who gets to formulate them.)

-- Paul Clarke, rec.arts.sf.written

Books : reviews

Greg Egan.
Quarantine.
Legend. 1992

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 13 February 2000

In 2037 the stars went out: The Bubble suddenly came into existence, surrounding the solar system, quarantining mankind inside. By now, 33 years later, most people have learned to live with that stupendous event. Nick Stavrianos, private investigator, is one of those -- but his life is turned upside down when an anonymous client hires him to track down Laura Andrews, a severely disabled mental defective who has impossibly gone missing from her secure institution, and for no apparent reason.

This is a heady mix of typical Egan-esque ideas -- nanotech neural modifications of mind and mood, gene manipulations of body chemistry, the consequences of quantum mechanics, the changes to humanity brought about by paradigm-altering technology, great gobs of cognitive philosophy -- all deep ideas integrated into a fascinating, complex, fast moving plot. I much prefer Egan's terse, punchy style over that of more verbose, well-padded authors: we get a variety of neural modifications, Laura's abduction, Nick's dead wife, and the star-quenching Bubble ... in just the first three pages! All this without sacrificing any depth or complexity later. In the hands of a lesser author, this might indicate typical First Novel syndrome -- every idea crammed into the story, not because it fits, but just because it's neat. But Egan weaves everything together so that it feels a natural part of the future world.

I'm not entirely convinced by the way the Many Worlds Interpretation of QM is combined with Copenhagen collapsing wavefunctions -- but the opportunities it gives, along with the neural mods, for exploring what it means to be me, rather that someone else rather similar, are fascinating. And I want (some of) those neural mods!

Greg Egan.
Permutation City.
Millennium. 1994

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 19 February 1999

It is the middle of the 21st century. Computing power has increased enormously, to the extent that it is possible to run very detailed simulations of human brains and human bodies, although only at about 1/17th real speed. Also, scanning technology has improved to the point where it is possible to scan an existing brain in detail. Put these two together, and you get Copies: people scanned and downloaded into virtual environments. But it's not all good news: many Copies can't take it, and 'bale out'. (I've learned a reason why I might not prefer to live as a Copy: no juicy physics with aesthetic deep structure to discover in this virtual world, just arbitrary simulation rules.) The Copies who do continue are worried about their rights, and about maintaining access to sufficient computer power. Then along comes Paul Durham with a very strange solution...

This is glorious. It gives a real feeling for the very different kinds of ways one might live as a Copy, and for the difference between VR and real life. The background is well drawn: the technology is just unremarkable everyday life for the characters. There is something on every level: hosts of delicious little details, like The Unclear Family, a soap opera about a blue-collar Copy family; fascinating subplots, like the members of Solipsist Nation; evolving Artificial Life with artificial physics in the Autoverse cellular automaton; The Church of the God Who Makes No Difference; and much more. There are lots of lovely twists, turns and revelations, sometimes linking the subplots surprisingly, and I certainly didn't expect the amazing halfway-stage punchline (at the end of chapter 15).

But, but, but, but, but! I just don't believe either the main 'dust' premiss, or the way it was discovered. (I'll explain why, but there are spoilers.)

my suspension of disbelief precipitated out

-- Andrew Plotkin, 1998 [on an event in Assassin's Quest]

However, ignore the fact that the grand finale is running in dust, and not on a real machine, and there are some fascinating ideas about what is reality. So, even despite my unwilling suspension of disbelief on the dust, this is a great story.

Greg Egan.
Axiomatic.
Millennium. 1995

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 1 September 1996

If you like your SF short stories peppered with phrases like "set of measure zero", "Cantor dust", and "cognitive models", these are the stories for you. They feature some of the newest ideas in mathematics, physics, computing and cognitive science, in well-written, taut stories.

My only grumble: the endings. Often the story just peters out, lacking a 'punchline', or has some obscure ending that doesn't fit with the rest. (Maybe I just don't get the point?) So my rating is 2.5 (it would be a 2, right up until the last paragraph).

Contents

The Infinite Assassin. 1991
A drug lets people watch 'themselves' in parallel universes. But sometimes things go wrong, letting the universes cross over, causing massive disruption. Then the user has to be killed, in all the universes. But someone is trying to stop the executions...
The Hundred-Light-Year Diary. 1992
Messages can be sent back in time, so everyone reads, and follows, their 'future diary'. Does this prove the lack of free will? How do you know your diary tells the truth?
Eugene. 1990
A couple's attempt to have a 'perfect' child through (eu)genetic engineering, and why it won't succeed.
The Caress. 1990
Life can copy Art, to an extraordinary degree, when you can genetically engineer your subjects. The policeman investigating the human-leopard ends up more involved than he would have wished.
Blood Sisters. 1991
Identical twins catch the same 'Monte Carlo' genetic virus: are they fated to live or die together?
Axiomatic. 1990
Do you have inconvenient little scruples or hang-ups? Like thinking murder is wrong getting in the way of vengeance? Let nanotechnology rewire your brain. But beware, once you've changed, you might not want to change back.
The Safe-Deposit Box. 1990
A man lives every day in a different 'host' brain, all living in the same city. He keeps a constant thread to his life by means of the contents of 'his' safety-deposit box. Why doesn't he have a body of his own?
Seeing. 1995
The ultimate out-of-body experience, because of damage to the brain's cognitive modelling processes.
A Kidnapping. 1995
Why should he pay the ransom demand? After all, his wife is safe at home, and the kidnapper's pictures are just simulations, aren't they?
Learning to Be Me. 1990
Everyone has a 'jewel' in their heads, learning to emulate their brain, so that it can take over when the brain begins to fail. But is this "death" for the "real" brain? (Shades of "Where Am I?", the last chapter of Daniel Dennett's Brainstorms).
The Moat. 1991
If we could genetically engineer our DNA to use different bases, it would solve a lot of problems of disease, but a new form of "racism" might arise.
The Walk. 1992
Even if you hold strong philosophical beliefs about death, you might need a little extra evidence in the case of your own.
The Cutie. 1989
Frank desperately wants a baby, but can't find a woman willing to carry one, or even donate an egg so that he can carry it. So he buys a "Cutie", a deliberately "dumbed-down" baby, that isn't regarded as human, and is genetically timebombed to die on its fourth birthday. But something goes wrong...
Into Darkness. 1992
Some future time-travel experiment has gone wrong, leaving behind The Intake, inside which everything can go in only one direction. Runners enter The Intake to save those trapped inside.
Appropriate Love. 1991
After massive injury and trauma, it's possible to grow you a replacement clone body in two years. But what to do with your brain for all that time? There's an ideal "biological life support mechanism" available ... if you have a wife.
The Moral Virologist. 1990
A religious fanatic, believing he's "God's Will", designs a super-AIDS virus, to kill homosexuals and adulterers. It can detect if it has seen more than one other DNA, and kills the host if it has. But he's forgotten something...
Closer. 1992
Michael feels alone, because he can't know what it's like being someone else; he wants to be less alone by getting closer to his lover Sian. Technology allows him to share bodies, and eventually share minds. But if you get too close, the other vanishes, and you are alone again.
Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies. 1992
Beliefs have coalesced into "basins of attraction", and all the people living in a basin believe the same thing. Some "tramps" have remained free -- living between the basins. Or is freedom just a strange attractor?

Greg Egan.
Distress.
Millennium. 1995

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 15 April 2003

It's 2055. Journalist Andrew Worth has just finished making a Frankenscience documentary that he's not sure he approves of, when he gets a chance to go off to the embargoed artificial Pacific island of Stateless, to make a documentary about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Violet Mosala, about to announce her Theory of Everything. He jumps at the chance, wrestling the story away from a fellow journalist who has spent the last six months researching it. But the strange greeting he receives when he arrives, and the spiralling increase in cases of Distress, are only the first indications that there is something much more at stake than just a new scientific theory. In true Greg Egan fashion, what is actually at stake is the future, and past, of the entire universe.

This is brilliant. The first few chapters, on the Frankenscience documentary, give Egan a chance to show off what are basically a bunch of fun short stories (although some do have a small later significance). Then he settles down to the main plot. And, since it's mostly talk, as the various characters explain their philosophies and physics to each other, it would seem doomed to failure, yet I found it utterly riveting. Egan packs in neat ideas, deep physics, deeper metaphysics, rants about religion and ignorances cults, thoughts on sociobiology and politics, biotechnology, pharmacology and ethics, and lots more, in a deeply interesting page-turner. Some may find the rant against the cult of ignorance a bit preachy, but I think it's a point well worth making -- forcibly and often -- and it fits in with the rest of the story.

I did have one problem with the book. (Well, other than the fundamental premise of the tale, of course, but then it is science fiction.) It is clear that there is something very wrong with Worth, maybe some kind of mental problem, from his dependence on his pharm and its melatonin patches, to his need for rules to interact with his girlfriend, to his reluctance to have a brain scan. But I never did manage to figure out what.

This is another great example of Egan doing his stuff -- packing in loads of neat ideas, from universe-spanning cosmologies down to little details of cool technology -- and he does do it so very well.

Greg Egan.
Diaspora.
Millennium. 1997

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 25 July 2004

Humanity is divided into three types: the polis citizens, downloaded minds running on software in virtual reality at about 1000 times the speed in the physical world time; the gleisner robots, software people living embodied lives in robot bodies; and fleshers, people still embodied in good old fashioned meat. Even the latter are of two kinds: the exuberants, who have modified DNA, and the statics, unmodified humans. The various groups get along more-or-less harmoniusly, until a great cataclysm threatens all flesher life on earth. Shaken by this experience, one of the polises sends out 1000 copies of itself to nearby stars, to hunt for help in explaining the cataclysm, to make sure it can never happen again. But they find more than they could ever have expected.

Egan does it again: a bold imagining of an immense future in an immense universe, with diamond-hard physics, an obvious love of mathematics, and deep ponderings on the meaning and purpose of life. Moving into a polis doesn't make life perfect: there is both tragedy and triumph in all the types of existence. The whole story is one of those grand mind-expanding experiences that good SF can provide so magnificently. Each episode dramatically opens out the landscape and dimensionality. The story ranges from little discussions about there being no easy way to learn mathematics:

Understanding an idea meant entangling it so thoroughly with all the other symbols in your mind that it changed the way you thought about everything.

(or as one of my colleagues puts it: "mathematics is not a spectator sport"), through how much you can be modified and still be you (what if you can get a mind upgrade to experience 12 dimensional worlds?), to the relative merits of physical versus virtual reality. The latter is beautifully answered in the chapter "Wang's Carpets", which has already been published as a stand-alone short story: its message is even more profound in the context of the rest of the book. It also answers my objections to living as a Copy in the Permutation City world -- now I can have my rich emergent physics and all the neat software mind upgrades!

Brilliant.

Greg Egan.
Luminous.
Millennium. 1998

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 7 May 2000

Another brilliant collection of Greg Egan's ultra-hard marvelous short stories. He really is the master of the smooth infodump. All the stories are great, but "Reasons to be Cheerful" and "The Planck Dive" stand out as superb [I want to live in a polis!].

Either his endings are getting more comprehensible, or I'm understanding him better, because I didn't have the "huh?" response so often. Only once, in fact, to the ending of "Our Lady of Chernobyl", and then more because I didn't believe it than I didn't understand it.

Contents

Chaff. 1993
Part of the Amazon is highly genetically modified, repelling all invaders, controlled by drugs barons. But biochemist Guillermo Largo has defected to there, and must be retrieved.
Mitochondrial Eve. 1995
Would knowing we are all related in the not-so-distant past bring humanity together? And could quantum entanglement help to determine exactly how we are related?
Luminous. 1995
What if the laws of mathematics aren't quite as fixed, or as consistent, as we thought?
Mister Volition. 1995
The mugger thinks that knowing exactly how his brain works will help him discover himself.
Cocoon. 1994
Why would anyone blow up the lab, when all it was trying to do was protect unborn babies from maternal toxins?
Transition Dreams. 1993
The irreducible computational properties of brain simulation results in transition dreams when you are copied into a computer. But they don't matter, do they?
Silver Fire. 1995
An outbreak of the dreadful plague is spreading in a strange new way across the country.
Reasons to be Cheerful. 1997
What if you had conscious control over what made you happy? Would you be happy?
Our Lady of Chernobyl. 1994
A detective tracks down a stolen icon painting, which no-one should have wanted to steal in the first place.
The Planck Dive. 1998
Five people in a polis embark on the ultimate experiment to determine if Tipler's eschatology is correct.

Greg Egan.
Teranesia.
Millennium. 1999

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 23 May 2009

As a child, Prabir Suresh had an idyllic existence, living on a tropical island while his biologist parents investigated genetic anomalies in the local butterflies. He populated the island with imaginary monsters, and named Teranesia. Then war shattered his world, and only he and his baby sister survived. When they are both grown, there is the chance to return to the island to investigate why the genetic anomalies are growing ever more puzzling. But Prabir has reasons for not wanting to go back.

This is a different kind of Greg Egan novel. It has the usual eloquent rants against religion and all forms of irrationality (including an hysterically funny riff on the design of a transgressive computer, designed to swap all the subjugated female zeros and aggressive male ones around -- well, it would be hysterically funny if it wasn't so close to the way some people actually think); it has, eventually, mind mangling science. But it is more about the relationships between Prabir and his parents, sister, lover, and fellow explorer. This is done very well, but, frankly, it's not what I read Greg Egan for! However, the ending is marvellous.

Greg Egan.
Schild's Ladder.
Gollancz. 2001

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 11 June 2011

Sometimes people who read about scientific theories like loop quantum gravity say "it's like reading science fiction". No it isn't. This is what reading science fiction about loop quantum gravity is like.

In the future, humanity has spread across the galaxy, some remaining true to embodied flesh, some uploaded in computers. But the light speed limit is a hard limit, meaning travellers can go where they like, but cannot return to those they have left behind. Even though, after a thousand years of timeless travel, their friends will still be alive, they'll have a thousand years of new unshared experiences, and will have changed. In this large, sparse universe, physicist Cass wants to perform an experiment in loop quantum gravity. This means travelling to a remote location where gravitational disturbances are minimised. There, the experiment goes dramatically wrong, and a volume of novo-vacuum starts expanding at half the speed of light. Fast forward 600 years, and the volume is still grow, forcing planet after planet to evacuate. Two factions aboard a spaceship travelling right on the border of the region, trying just to understand what might be inside, are arguing about whether to destroy it, or learn from it, when they make a discovery that will have enormous consequences.

Simply brilliant. The gobs of physics, the way people have profoundly changed, the way they remain distressingly the same, the philosophical speculations, the biology, the revelations, the whiplashing changes of scale, all marvellous. Egan has a way of packing an enormous amount of detail into a few spare pages -- and carries through the effect of changes to their logical if sometimes shocking conclusions. Great stuff.

Greg Egan.
Dark Integers.
2008

Contents

Luminous. 1995
What if the laws of mathematics aren't quite as fixed, or as consistent, as we thought?
Dark Integers. 2007
Riding the Crocodile. 2005
Glory. 2007
Oceanic. 1998

Greg Egan.
Incandescence.
Gollancz. 2008

Greg Egan.
Oceanic.
Gollancz. 2009

Contents

Lost Continent. 2008
Dark Integers. 2007
Crystal Nights. 2008
Steve Fever. 2007
Induction. 2007
Singleton. 2002
Oracle. 2000
Border Guards. 1999
Riding the Crocodile. 2005
Glory. 2007
Hot Rock. 2009
Oceanic. 1998

Greg Egan.
Zendegi.
Gollancz. 2010

Greg Egan.
The Clockwork Rocket.
Gollancz. 2011

Greg Egan.
The Eternal Flame.
Gollancz. 2012

In an alien universe, the generation ship Peerless has set out to save its home world from annihilation. But the Peerless is facing urgent problems of its own. It does not carry fuel to return home, so without a new form of propulsion it will remain stranded in space.

A population explosion has stretched life support to its limits, and the biology of the travellers offers only one way to prevent growth: subjecting the women to famine to limit the number of children they bear.

When the astronomer Tamara discovers the Object – a massive meteor just within reach – hopes rise that there might finally be a solution to the fuel crisis. As an expedition is organised, a biologist struggles to devise a better way to control fertility, while his partner stumbles on a strange phenomenon that challenges everything she thought she knew.

As the three scientists clash with the prejudices of their society, they find themselves swept up in two dangerous revolutions: one in their understanding of matter and energy, the other in the roles imposed by their species on women and men. Either change may destroy the ship – together, they might save their world.

Greg Egan.
The Arrows of Time.
Gollancz. 2013

In a universe where space and time play by different rules, interstellar voyages last longer for the travellers than for those they left behind. After six generations in flight, the inhabitants of the mountain-sized spacecraft the PEERLESS have used their borrowed time to develop technology that could save their home world from annihilation.

But not every traveller feels allegiance to a world they have never seen, and as tensions mount over starting the long voyage home, new complication arises: the prospect of constructing a messaging system that will give the PEERLESS news of its own future. While some of the crew welcome the opportunity, others are convinced that knowing what lies ahead in their own lives will be oppressive. When dissent erupts into violence, the inhabitants of the PEERLESS must make a decision.