Review: Teranesia, by Greg Egan

teranesia

Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-575-08333-2

(Review first published on the ASIM website, May 2008)

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Greg Egan has established a reputation as a hard SF writer par excellence, capable of vertigo-inducing far-future extrapolations that skirt the edge of the unimaginable while striving to remain faithful to the known laws and limitations of the Universe. Much of his work shares a thematic sensibility with the writings of Olaf Stapledon or, more recently, Stephen Baxter; this reissue of his 1999 novel, Teranesia, shows that Egan is equally adept when channelling the likes of John Wyndham.

Prabir Suresh is the elder child of biologist parents, his family stationed on an island so small it has evaded inclusion on any maps of the Indonesian archipelago. While his parents busy themselves with the mystery of a uniquely configured butterfly species, found only on the island, nine-year-old Prabir finds himself in the role of guardian to his infant sister Madhusree. It’s a responsibility that takes on a dramatically heightened seriousness as civil war descends on the outlying regions of Indonesia.

Twenty years later, Prabir and Madhusree have settled into a different mode of existence, in Toronto. Prabir is a software developer for a bank, while Maddy is a grad student in biology. But an upheaval is initiated when Maddy is invited to join a large expedition to southern Indonesia, where a cluster of strange mutations has been reported in the local birds, insects, and tree frogs. Prabir, convinced that their former island home of ‘Teranesia’ is somehow implicated in these bizarre biological developments, opposes Maddy’s participation in the expedition, but she is not to be fobbed off with his concerns over revisiting the island where their parents died. She departs, seeking the source of the mutations, and after some soul-searching Prabir decides that he needs to intercept her. It’s important for him to reach Teranesia first.

Teranesia is a long way away from the hard-SF space opera that has dominated Egan’s more recent work, and in many ways this makes it a more accessible read. Egan’s commitment to scientific feasibility is still uncompromising, but here the focus is much more on the genetic detail than on the physical and mathematical imaginings of Schild’s Ladder or Incandescence. It wouldn’t, I suspect, be an Egan novel if it didn’t contain some patches where the erudition threatens to overpower the requirements of the plot, but here it is contained, and Egan takes ample advantage of the opportunity for some pertinent commentary on current events and opinions, including a concise filletting of Australian policies on refugee detention, several episodes that illuminate the tensions underlying separatist struggles in the real-world islands around Teranesia, and some lambastic swipes at emergent trends in buzzword-heavy, nonsense-laden academic discourse. This is all done within the constraints of a reasonably linear plot, and adds depth without in any way lessening the developing tension.

Teranesia is a novel of ideas; but it’s also innately character-driven. Prabir, through whose eyes (almost) every incident in the book is filtered, is revealed as a highly complex and understandably vulnerable individual, and the characters of Madhusree, their parents, Prabir’s lover Felix, and Martha Grant, the freelance biologist who finally enlists Prabir’s assistance as a local guide (to a region he escaped from 18 years ago) are all solidly drawn also. I’ve grown accustomed, in reading Egan’s work, to the necessity to attempt empathy with characters whose circumstances, physical nature, and mindset are all extreme distortions of current societal tendencies; it’s refreshing to encounter, in this book, a more readily recognisably human set of characters.

There are aspects of the book that threatened, for me, to rupture suspension of disbelief. The portrayal of Prabir’s aunt and her husband is a little over-the-top in its savaging of the New Age-y mindset; and some of the quantum concepts embodied in the book’s latter stages are, I feel, well on the way to becoming new SF clichés. (In Egan’s defence, Teranesia is a decade or so old, and may well be the first fictional airing of these ideas. Yet the book does not show its age: near-future SF is often troubled by something akin to anachronism, as the unravelling present displays increasing disparity with the fictionalised extrapolation, but Teranesia reads as though it were written yesterday, or at most last year.) And while some of Prabir’s actions and motivations appear arguably inconsistent or surprising, he retains sufficient plausibility at the book’s close that the coda is fitting, appropriate, and genuinely moving.

Overall, Teranesia is a haunting addition to the Egan canon, and a convincing demonstration that Egan’s skills are not limited to far-future virtuosity.

 

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2009)

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