Review: Oceanic, by Greg Egan


(Gollancz, 978-0-575-08652-4)
(Review first appeared in ASIM 43, January 2010)

Greg Egan is one of the most accomplished writers currently active within the domain of hard science fiction. He’s probably most widely known for a series of standalone novels including Schild’s Ladder (2001) and Incandescence (2008), but he has also remained active as a writer of shorter fiction. His latest book, Oceanic, collects a dozen stories first published elsewhere, within the pages of Asimov’s, Interzone, and various anthologies.

Oceanic opens with ‘Lost Continent’. Ali, seeking to escape an uncertain but grim fate, finds himself flung from a familiar world into an unfamiliar. ‘Lost Continent’ is an excellent opener for the collection, conveying as it does Egan’s concern with fairness and natural justice, concepts notably absent from the society into which Ali has been thrust. There are strong, almost blatant points of comparison with the plight of Australia’s would-be ‘illegal immigrants’, but Egan is careful to let us interpret for ourselves the scenario which he’s painted here. Also on show here are Egan’s gift for the vivid description of exotic environments (among modern SF writers, perhaps only Iain M. Banks has a comparable mastery for visual description) and his ability to gently move a story to the very brink.

In ‘Dark Integers’, communication between alternate realities has been effected through the medium of mathematics. It’s a dialogue which begins by blind chance, but which ends up posing some deeply troubling choices. It’s typical of Egan’s subject matter that the story outline may sound abstruse, but Egan’s characterisation and the sheer clarity of his language ensures the reader’s engagement with the text. You’ll never view an ATM in the same light after reading this.

‘Crystal Nights’ concerns efforts to develop a functioning artificial intelligence through the medium of natural selection – well, ‘artificial’ natural selection if you will. Daniel Cliff is obsessed with the dream of creating an AI race, called ‘Phites’. But will the achievement of his ambition live up to his hopes? (And when, from Faust onwards, has this kind of ‘grand design’ thing ever gone well for the progenitor?)

‘Steve Fever’ is a piece of coldly drawn absurdism, in which Egan shows it’s possible to go orders of magnitude beyond spam emails, in regard to intrusiveness, malevolence, and sheer pointlessness. ‘Fever’ is not the most profound story in the collection, by a long shot, but it’s arguably the most fun.

The shortest story in the collection, ‘Induction’, is a piece of diamond-hard SF which, despite its steadfast adherence to the absolute limiting speed of light (a constraint with which Egan is distinctly reluctant to tamper), emerges as a near-perfect exposition of SF’s sense of wonder. One of the criticisms most often levelled at ‘hard SF’ is its lack of emotional resonance, a complaint that can hardly ever be applied (with any justification) to Egan’s work.

‘Singleton’ is a long, and ultimately moving, story of artificial intelligence, free will, and quantum computers. As with several of Egan’s novellas, there’s enough depth and detail in the story that it’s easy to imagine its expansion to novel length, but it works just fine the size it is.

‘Oracle’, one of the collection’s older stories (it first appeared in Asimov’s in 2000) is also the closest Egan comes (in this collection, at least) to an outwardly preachy tone. The protagonist in ‘Oracle’, Robert Stoney, mathematician, is a man imprisoned for his beliefs (or lack of them). Challenged to a televised debate with Cambridge don John Hamilton (whose religous beliefs have been infused into a childrens’ book series set in the fantasy land of ‘Nescia’, and whose wife is terminally ill), Stoney attempts to make the case for machine intelligence; although in reality, the two men are at odds about something more fundamental. The one story in the collection ostensibly set in the past, Egan still manages a futuristic tone here.

There’s an apparent logic to the ordering of this collection, which didn’t make itself obvious on first reading, but which on reviewing seems crystal-clear. The seven stories up to ‘Oracle’ – a little over half the book, all told – are all grounded in a society recognisable as our own, or as a near-future projection of our own civilisation, or as a mild distorion of our own circumstance. The five stories that form the rest of the collection, from ‘Border Guards’ onwards, are Egan’s exploration of the far future, with protagonists which, in several instances, are not even human. It’s a testament to Egan’s skill as a master of his craft that the division between these two groups of stories is so slight as to appear insubstantial.

‘Border Guards’ is a vaguely-located story (physical references are deliberately scant) which, in essence, offers a perspective on grief in a postmodern setting.

‘Riding the Crocodile’ is the first of three stories to share a universe with Egan’s latest (and somewhat disappointing) novel Incandescence. In ‘Crocodile’, Jasim and Leila’s preoccupation with the pathologically uncommunicative nature of the Galactic core’s ‘Aloof’ culture provides the impetus for a truly Galaxy-spanning adventure.

I’ve previously reviewed ‘Glory’, Egan’s contribution to The New Space Opera. Back in 2008, I wrote: “…Egan’s use of an arcane optical phenomenon as a crucial plot element impressed me greatly, as did his refusal to resort to magical physics in the construction of his tale.  Egan’s story tells of two human mathematicians, Anne and Jane, who incorporate themselves into the warring factions of the Noudah race for a chance to rescue some details of the mathematical heritage of the Noudah’s antecedents, the Niah.  There are reasonably transparent analogies drawn to recent developments in terrestrial civilisation, but ‘Glory’ skirts polemicism.” I’ve nothing to add this time round, except to say that the story arguably works better here, in the context of the two adjacent tales.

‘Hot Rock’ is another somewhat-operatic space adventure. It’s a good story in its own right, which I found particularly enjoyable because Egan does here what he seems to do all too seldom: he describes a planet. All of the other characteristics of his writing are here, too, of course, such as the detailed speculation, the experimentation with truly bizarre lifeforms, and the concern with careful and plausible characterisation.

‘Oceanic’, the novella, rounds out the collection, and another planet is described. On Covenant the Deep Church and the Transitional Church both seek to make sense of human presence on a largely ocean-covered world. Daniel has been brought up in accordance with the Deep Church’s precepts; but is it possible he, and everyone around him, has been looking at things from the wrong perspective?  This is a fascinating exploration of spirituality, laced with biochemistry and some decidedly innovative human engineering.

‘Oceanic’, the novella, won the 2009 Hugo Award for best novella. And Oceanic, the collection, has just won the Aurealis Award for best collection.

With credentials like that, and Egan’s pedigree, how can you go wrong? Highly recommended.

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