Review: Incandescence, by Greg Egan

IncandescenceEgan - Copy

(Gollancz, 978-0-575-081635)

(Review first appeared in ASIM 36, August 2008)

Second books, like second albums and second dates, can be problematic in a way that the first example often avoids.  It’s a question of expectations, which are much more focussed the second time around: one has an idea of what to expect.  But because one is extrapolating from only a single precedent, the interaction between participants can be more – let’s face it – awkward than was the case, first time round.

Now Incandescence is not Greg Egan’s second book, far from it.  It is, I believe, his ninth.  But it is the second book by Egan which I’ve read (the other is Schild’s Ladder), and so I approached Incandescence with some sense of Egan’s measure as a writer, and a reasonable (or unreasonable) baggage of preconceptions.  I’d enjoyed Schild’s Ladder, and I had every reason to anticipate enjoyment of Egan’s new book also: he’s got that awkward second book out of his system, several years ago; he obviously knows what he’s doing.

But comparing Incandescence to its predecessor is not, I think, a fair approach.  The new book is not Son of Schild’s Ladder, nor Return to Schild’s Ladder, nor Schild’s Ladder: The Next GenerationIncandescence is a wholly distinct new work, with no connection whatever to the earlier book.  That said, it’s still natural on some level to look for commonalities, and of course there are some.  Both are infused with Egan’s passionate interest in the physics and mathematics that describe the strangeness of our universe, and with a belief that anything is possible unless expressly forbidden by the laws of nature.  Both explore environments so extreme that it’s almost impossible to realistically imagine them with the mind’s eye, though it certainly helps to borrow Egan’s eyes …

Greg Egan has established a well-deserved reputation as one of the foremost practitioners of hard science fiction, and Incandescence will do that reputation no harm.  It’s a steady, scrupulously evoked story of far-future survival and exploration, and if it opens with less of an obvious and compelling hook than its predecessor, it nonetheless does a very good job of drawing the reader in to an almost unimaginably alien and hostile environment.

If I have a criticism of Incandescence (and I suppose, really, that I do), it is that the tone of the work is somewhat flat, with no particular regard given to dramatic tension.  This is, on one hand, laudable, in the sense that Egan has not peppered the plot with contrived incidents and crises for the sake of artificially heightened drama; rather, he’s restrained the scope of the story to explore the problems which devolve naturally from the dilemma in which he’s placed his protagonists.  It’s a style which appeals to the intellect, provided the reader has a taste for the rigours and wonders of hard SF, but it is likely to leave unsatisfied those seeking the visceral rewards of an action-packed space opera novel.

The story itself concerns a quest by Rakesh, a human-descended member of the Amalgam, who journeys deep into the normally sacrosanct Galactic-bulge territory of the rival Aloof consortium of civilisations, on a search to find the homeworld of a previously-unsuspected line of DNA-based organisms.  Rakesh is accompanied on his travels by Parantham, a fellow Amalgamist (but one whose origins appear entirely synthetic, rather than an offshoot of any of the Galaxy’s eleven known biological streams), and the action is divided between their efforts and those, in alternate chapters, of the centimetre-tall arthropodal beings Zak and Roi, inhabitants of the mysterious and translucent Splinter.  I found the Splinter chapters, in particular, to be slow-moving at the start, and it is only very gradually that it becomes apparent the Splinter, in the incrementally unfolding revelation of its perilous situation, is in fact the principal driving force of the novel.  Can Zak and Roi convince the Splinter’s many other inhabitants that they are all in mortal danger, and rally enough assistance to help find a means of escaping their environment’s predicament?  Will Rakesh’s expedition reach them before it is too late?  I’m not telling …

The story features the usual Egan hallmarks: the evident passion for cutting-edge science (and the flair for communicating complex concepts in language so plain and clear you wish he’d turn his hand to a textbook or two), the innate plausibility of his sometimes extreme constructs, and the levelheaded extrapolation of societal trends many millennia into the future.  Nonetheless, I have some misgivings about the book’s approachability, less on the basis of its scientific content than on Egan’s choice of alien crab-like creatures as the principal characters with which to attempt to engage reader empathy.  In my experience, perseverance through several chapters was necessary before I was able to invest in concern at Zak’s and Roi’s fate.  If you’re a repeat reader of Egan’s work, the sometime bizarreness of his protagonists’ body-shapes and sizes will likely be something with which you’re already familiar (and able to make allowances for), but readers who haven’t previously encountered Egan’s far-future visions may require some reassurance that the journey is worth it.  I would say that the payoff is subtle, perhaps even muted, but it is there.

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