The first book I read by Greg Egan, about ten years ago or so was a collection of short-stories called Axiomatic, and I was addicted. Withdrawal set in later when I read two of his novels, Distress and Diaspora.
Egan's style is not dissimilar to that of other science-fiction writers; stories are based on a hard core of two or three science-based speculations, around which the drama, dialogue, and conflicts between characters centre. Axiomatic was based around several related speculations about genetic science and neurotechnology. What if we could upload our personalities onto microchips? And how would we react in those circumstances? What if a mother and father decided to use all the genetic tools at their disposal and create a child who really was perfect, in every way? How about a Christian fundamentalist geneticist who creates, in perfect sincerity, a sexually-transmissible disease that kills everyone who does not have heterosexual sex with a single partner for their whole life? Why would he do it? In what ways could the creation of this virus turn against him? Egan wrote brilliantly about these ideas, imagining the extreme reactions of different groups of people to technological developments, and sympathising with the moral anguish encountered by people confronted, thanks to technology, with choices that had previously been unthinkable.
But his novels are disappointing. They suffer from some typical problems of science-fiction - they are overdetailed but often lack the important details. Egan doesn't use a simple, obvious word when a complicated, obscure word will do - there are pages and pages of scientific jargon that are superfluous to the plot. In Distress, I've just read a full-chapter interview with a character that could be summarised thusly: 'some people are different from others. Some people are more capable of imagining what the thoughts and feelings of other people are like, than other people. People react to this in different ways.' Egan throws words about like 'hypothalamus', chucks in several brain scans, and invents a scientific name for a region of the brain that deals with recognition of personality traits - but really, he could have summed the entire chapter up in those few sentences above, along with a little scene-setting.
Egan is better at devising situations for his characters than characters for his situations. For instance, I've just read in Distress a break up scene that makes less sense than it should: "I closed my eyes. I didn't want to hear this... Tears were streaming down her face." I can believe the reasons for the break up, the angst experienced by the characters, the closing of the eyes, the not wanting to hear things, the tears, the description of the situation - but not all at once. The truth is that the characters break up because Egan needs them to break up at that point for his plot - they're the sort of people that would have that sort of thing happen to them in this sort of book. In Distress it's fascinating to read that transexuals can choose to have their brains operated on to become more fully the sex that they want to be, or that there can be a group called the 'Voluntary Autists', who want to have their brain operated on to become a different type of person. But they are hardly any different from any other of his characters; they serve a plot purpose. His characters are generally acted on more than actors; they are the victims of scientific law, or fate, or a historical movement, and if they are sometimes willing participants in scientific changes, Egan often writes as if this willing participation is an illusion.
Not that the ideas are bad at all. In Diaspora, he imagines a human society in which individual consciousness has been mapped and uploaded into a computer database. With their minds extended by the computational possibilities of computers, and perfected according to neuroscientific discovery, these characters are pretty much supergeniuses, with the potential for achievements far beyond the realm of human possibility in the present day. And what do they do? They dick around on the internet and play mathematical games: they lead lives slightly less interesting than my own. Egan's imagination fails him because he lacks the superhuman potential of his characters - which is fairly understandable. Other authors have encountered similar problems: in his Cities in Flight novels, for instance, James Blish's character's lead infinitely long lives of infinite dullness.
There is a large problem with Egan's novels, too. The general theme that he develops in Axiomatic and Distress is that people become frightened and paranoid about technological change, and that their reactions to technological change is extreme and sometimes divisive. That's fair enough, but in order to describe the effects of technological change on people, it's hardly necessary to describe, in detail, all the technological changes that are happening - as he does in Distress. There, we get whole chapters which consist simply of extended scientific descriptions. The words he give to characters often read like a press release, or a snippet from the New Scientist. Aside from anything else, it ruins the illusion he is trying to create. It's hard to imagine feeling paranoid about the technological changes he describes; we've encountered similar changes in our own lifetimes and haven't been fazed by it. Also, the emotions of paranoia, horror, and anguish that Egan describes are interesting, but are often a good deal less interesting than other, less extreme emotions: boredom, wry amusement, pleasure, slight annoyance. Like, for instance, the slight annoyance I encounter on re-reading Distress; almost enough to offset the considerable pleasure I get on uncovering Egan's ideas.
What Egan's novels lack, I think, is a good metaphor, an idea large enough to subsume the entire plot. In Distress, Egan does attempt to sum things up with a mysterious new mental illness named 'Distress' - but it's less convincing than it was meant to be. The stories in Axiomatic were far more convincing, possibly because they never took an idea too far. It was almost always possible to believe the anguish of the characters because the stories were restricted; you very rarely had to consider situations outside the immediate one. But also, some of the ideas there were just so full of potential - as in, for instance, The Infinite Assassin (a detective story in a multiverse), or Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies (which draws inspiration from fractal imagery like the famous Mandelbrot set).
Fussy of me to demand this of Egan? I guess so, but that's what readers are supposed to be like. You can keep expecting a perfect novel - War of the Worlds - but that book has only ever happened once in science fiction's history. More often, you get books like The Great Brain Robbery.
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