Sunday, March 08, 2009

Slight annoyance at Distress

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.


Steve said...

The only thing I read of his was "Permutation City." From what you say, it sounds like he has repeatedly dealt with the "uploading" theme, which is what PC was about too.

[I think the concept is a bit of a crock anyway. It's like the idea of a personal flying car or a computer that passes the Turing test: it sort of seems plausible at first glance when you see how far we have come in a century, but when you start thinking about the problems to be solved in detail, the concept keeps receding away into the distance.]

I think he has the same problem as many other "hard" science fiction writers: they just aren't very good at characters. (They also don't care much whether the protagonists are particularly likeable.)

My strong preference in science fiction is to go with good plotting and likeable characters over clever central scientific idea. Hence I quite like early to mid-career Heinlein, since he rarely gets into much detail on the science, but is simply a good story teller.

Maria said...

I read somewhere that sci-fi writers could 'get away' with cardboard cut-out characters and even so-so writng/description because what people hung out for was the concept; that's what mattered, if you had a clever concept then it was good.

However while I don't argue that some people may just love a book because of the brilliant sci-fi concept and the concept may be more important here than in other genres, well I think that if the other bits are paid attention to and quality is delivered ... so much the better.

I don't think it is a good excuse for the sci-fi writer to say "I am a sci-fi writer, I don't need to write character" an improved work can deliver in those areas too.

I don't know about "likable necessarily but I thibnk it's great if a character makes you want to know what happens next. Something draws you in.

I read K. J. Parker's "Devices and Desires" recently (fantasy with an engineering edge) and thought it was good work - well-plotted and paced, and the characetrs weren't exactly likable ... but they made you want to know what happened next. The main character was amoral and clever and kept you guessing, and there were other characters whose predicaments managed to play on your sympathies even though they were not necessarily good or talented or noble.

But it's more difficult to sympathise with or care what happens to a character even a "goodie" when you are given no insight into their soul/mind/motivations. then they became simply plot devices and I think that's what's wrong with some stories ...

Caz said...

Sounds as though he is lacking even in a "brilliant sci-fi concept".

Human angst about change, science and technology are not new themes, they've been around since Adam & Eve.

Does anyone really believe their weren't arguments, homicide, over fire, sharp instruments, and shaving of beards? Adam, if I recall, was a bit antsy about the whole apple thing and being able to see.

You can read in the news every day of the week one thing or another that, in essence, comes down to distrust and fear of science. It's all over the place in the real world. Nothing "sci-fi" about it. This sets up greater challenges for anyone wanting to write in that genre, as it should.

TimT said...

I guess a lot of writers are able to get away with characters who are poorly defined. Or not even defined at all. It's not specifically a sf trait - just as having a good idea is not specifically a sf trait, either. (Not many 'characters' in T S Eliot poems, for instance).

Caz, 'Distress' certainly is lacking in a good central SF idea... what it amounts to so far is people going to science conferences arguing about scientific theories invented by the author, with some thriller-style action going on in the background. A potboiler with some pseudo-scientific-platonic dialogues. Some interesting sf ideas surface from time to time though... I think the general theme of anxiety about scientific discoveries has some merit - Egan demonstrates that in some of his short stories - a few are summarised here. I think in Distress Egan mistakes this theme as the endpoint of a dramatic narrative, rather than the starting point.

Matt Arnold said...

You missed the point of the chapter on Voluntary Autism. The point was the the two most dangerous words are "healthy" and "human".

TimT said...

Nope. I read that bit too. The pity of it is that those two words are buried in about two thousand other barely readable words.

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