-- Paul Clarke, rec.arts.sf.written
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!
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.)
-- 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.
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).
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.
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:
(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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.