Saturday, January 10, 2009

Review: Incandescence

Greg Egan has always been one of my favorite science fiction authors, but he's not prolific --- a novel or so every 2 or 3 years is what he seems to do, though he publishes short stories quite frequently. Incandescence (DRM-free Kindle-compatible ebook) is his latest novel.

The novel takes place in the far future, in a universe where the Galaxy has been largely explored by sentient life, which has somehow built a network where digital citizens can interact with each other in virtual worlds, choose to become embodied or remain virtual, and travel as data between star systems at light-speed. The central part of the galaxy, however, is largely off-limits, held by mysterious beings known as the Aloof, though they seem to happily allow their network to be used by other beings as a short-cut across the galaxy.

When a being who has recently used this short-cut unencrypted passes on to Rakesh (the protagonist) her experience, in which the Aloof had none too subtly showed her evidence of DNA-life near the galaxy center, implicitly inviting explorations by non-Aloofs, Rakesh immediately launches an expedition to discover what kind of DNA life could live in that harsh environment.

From then on, we alternate between chapters involving Roi (who we understand to be one of those aliens) and Rakesh's pursuit of her civilization. The two civilizations eventually do meet, but the time frames involved (because of the time it takes even light to travel the distances involved) are more murky.

Rakesh's chapters are interesting, providing what Egan's view of virtual travel combined with embodiment will be like, but doesn't explore any of the other deeper issues, such as if you've been virtualized, why not produce multiple copies of yourself and then merge them eventually --- those issues have been extensively explored in Greg Egan's short stories, so perhaps he felt it would be redundant to explore them here.

Roi's chapters, however, are a mess. While I can understand Egan's desire to provide an exposition of relativity and general physics in fiction, I'm not a big fan of the way he chose to do it --- the way the enlightenment happens just seems unbelievable to me, despite his attempts to use genetic engineering as a way to explore it.

And as is usual with a lot of hard science fiction, the characters are woodenly drawn, with no development whatsoever, and there's a sense of lack of fulfillment towards the end, as the narrative strands end rather abruptly.

If you're a Greg Egan fan, this novel will likely leave you disappointed, though perhaps reminding you why he's far better known for his short stories than his novels. If you're not a Greg Egan fan, start with one of his short story collections instead. They're significantly more rewarding with less frustration --- the issues that come up in his novels just don't show themselves in his short stories.
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