Re: Egan

Damien Broderick (
Wed, 08 Sep 1999 11:31:32 +0000

At 09:28 AM 7/09/99 -0700, Hal wrote:

> I know that many people are distressed to consider that
>the miracles of life and of consciousness may be ultimately mechanical,
>but I doubt that most of us feel that way. It seems though that many
>of Egan's stories are meant to depict a sense of hopelessness and of
>the meaningless of life based on this fact.

No, no, no. Au contraire. Egan says: look, use your brains, understand the world, and grasp that there is no *external* meaning. There isn't even any reliable internal standpoint. Deal with it.

That isn't hopelessness, properly regarded. It's a `reason to be cheerful'. (We're a sardonic lot, we Aussies.)

Here's my recent review of Egan's latest short story collection, published in an Australian zine, The Coode Street Review:

Luminous - Greg Egan
Millennium, 1998, tpb, 295pp, $A24.95

To get the ducking and weaving out of the way: in *Australian Book Review* (Feb/Mar 1998), discussing Greg Egan's *tour-de-force* novel *Diaspora*, I noted that 13 years earlier I'd called him `perhaps the most promising of the Australian sf newcomers'. I added: `He has fulfilled that promise, and more. At 36, he is now perhaps the most important sf writer in the world.' *Luminous*, a collection of 10 short pieces and novellas published between 1993 and 1998, showcases Egan at the story length within which he established his reputation and created that standing.

Many readers disagree, however, that he's actually achieved such distinction, supposing Egan is being hailed as the world's *best* sf writer, quite a different point. (Then again, some readers clearly *do* see him that way.) At various times in sf's fairly brief history, writers as various as Wells, `Doc' Smith, Heinlein, Le Guin - even, god help us, Harlan Ellison and Larry Niven - have been pivotal, breaking trails, showing fresh ways for sf to expand into untouched regions of narrative space. Of those, only Wells, Heinlein and Le Guin could rationally be regarded as also the best of their time.

In many respects Egan is still an undeveloped literary artist. Even his finest work totters by comparison with the complex best of, say, John Crowley, James Morrow, Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick, Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ, recent Le Guin. These are writers whose texts do more than deploy with clean, brilliant ingenuity some astonishing or seemingly paradoxical insight from science and philosophy, which is Egan's forté. They engage us more fully in their imaginative embrace (however naive and old-fashioned such a formulation as that inevitably strikes us, all these decades after the advent of poststructuralism's corrosive analytics). Their characters touch us for weeks or even years, having been rendered out of the clay of our own richest self-understanding - the template tales we each use to explain self and others - reshaped at the prompting of experts in human sensibility who use all the storyteller's tools, including the heart.

Is Egan (as artist) heartless? Does his work lack heart? It can often seem that way. His stories are, yes, luminous technical feats in opening out or deconstructing axiomatics, individual and cultural. He is enviably in command (or gives the impression of being so) of the latest neurosciences, molecular biology, advanced computer programming, artificial and natural intelligence, evolutionary theory. His politics is crisp, astute, pitilessly candid, and by and large I am sympathetic to its account of human conduct. If his style is... *level* (let's not say `flat')... that isn't because it exults in deflating pretension, like the inverse snobbery of grunge or any other self-consciously boho posture; rather, he tells his stories by means not alien to the French existentialists of the 1940s and 1950s - Camus Among the Galaxies, Robbe-Grillet in the labyrinths of the brain's modules. You can see why Egan prefers this anti-heroic, anti-humanist locution. It enacts his themata. It is the natural voice for a disillusioned, clear-eyed observer of human sanctimony in the last era when self-deceit remains (barely) possible yet almost everywhere regnant.

For all that, I wish he'd extend his range. The writer you tend to think of while reading Egan's relentless fables is Stanislaw Lem (when it's not Doug Hofstadter or Dan Dennett), probing consciousness and volition until those central conceits blink into dazzling fragments, spin, adhere once more, leaving only the impossible after-image of black-clad stage-handlers shuffling spotlit puppets - except that the handlers *were never there*... But there is more in Lem's oeuvre than games and hilarious verbal agility; it is hard, as yet, to imagine Egan writing a book to equal Lem's first novel, *The Hospital of the Transfiguration*, at once formally engineered with great cool beauty and heartbreakingly moving.

For all that, I urgently commend *Luminous*. It is, in its own terms - terms that (I hope) are helping to reorient sf once again in the direction of hard thought and away from squishy self-indulgent consumerist wish fulfilment - an excellent gathering. It catches an aspect of the cusp of the millennium in just the way that Wells' sf did for his own two centuries. Wells embodied Victorian desires of the 19th, while reaching forward to a 20th of fantastical technologies. The machineries in Wells were external, even if often they were palpably expressions of wish or mental states: time travel (memory and anticipation), invisibility (voyeurism, and camouflage in a dangerous, puzzling world), terrifying military threats and opportunities that staged and foresaw the upheavals of class near to Wells' own torn soul.

The mechanisms in Egan are on both the grandest scales (the substrates of space and time, beyond the infinitesimal Planck interval that define the quantum) and the most intimate (those intimations of the machine in the ghost we must all share, if we dare to learn what science is now exposing, as functional magnetic resonance imaging and PET scans reveal the flux of our brains even as we see, hear, think, imagine, dream)... Egan need not look to invaders from Mars; his own gaze and intellect are already vast and cool and, if not unsympathetic, *diagnostic*. Idea is almost all; his fiction has just barely enough domestic business to establish and convey the salience to human persons of these high biological and cultural abstractions. In the end, almost always, we are left with a fatal sense of having had an allegory foisted on us. Indeed, so central is the raw idea in many of these pieces that a reviewer risks spoiling them by `giving away' some of the key elements. Be warned.

The slightest of the stories is the earliest, `Transition Dreams' (1993, *Interzone*), yet already it deals effortlessly with conceits only now coming into focus elsewhere: uploading your mind from fallible protein into a durable computer platform and ultimately an independent robot body (the Gleisners of *Diaspora*) free of the limitations of flesh but with all its advantages and more. If mind is itself a vast computation, what is its fate during that transition? A sleep akin to coma? A protracted nightmare of unhinged hallucination? Egan tells a neat horror story with mild philosophical implications, but that's all. It's no advance on his key early tale, `Learning to Be Me' (1990, *Interzone*).

The intellectually sinuous `Mitochondrial Eve' (1995, *Interzone*) is a typical ideational escapade in which a bombastic hightech bid to rid the earth of traditional racisms and sectional strife backfires, inevitably, and spawns a brand-new fire-flickering, bloody means to bolster old tribalisms and new. The tale is worked through in a schematic, convenient conjugal conflict that enacts in small that battle of the sexes its theme accelerates and detonates. Egan is bleak in his dark humour; you get the feeling that he doesn't see much hope for people, poor people, poor damned mired hard-wired people.

`Chaff' (1993, *Interzone*) makes that explicit. Egan's agent flies into El Nido de Ladrones, a micro-ecology of lethal designer pharmaceuticals between Colombia and Peru owned by biotech drug cartels and utopians, and learns what Egan's protagonists always learn, sooner or later, captured in a quote from Conrad's *Heart of Darkness*: `as to superstitions, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze'. It is a scarifying assertion, one that undermines everything that makes us human (if we take it seriously, and Egan tries again and again to force us to do so). The story's landscape, its detail filigree, is assured, convincing, the very model (like, say, those of Lucius Shepard) of a modern major genre *Weltbild*. His values-are-chaff, meaning-is-contingent case is tested again in this melodramatic setting, which is really just a narrative gadget to keep us tracing the logical exercise. Imagine a drug that allows you to re-write the mental maze which is yourself. What happens when you are unhooked from the tyranny and structural solidity of `human nature', of genetically contrived codes and tropisms of conduct? Here is radical freedom as even Sartre and Camus and Biswanger never dreamed it. Here is utter self-fashioning. Yet who is the self performing this self-levitating feat of construction? We step into an Escher-void once we grant that `all the "eternal verities" - all the sad and beautiful insights of all the great writers from Sophocles to Shakespeare - are *less than chaff in a breeze*.'

What burns through these minimally dramatised demonstrations in epistemology and indeed ontology is Egan's own problematic or quest: how *can* we know the world, or ourselves as a sliver of it, when everything comes to us via the mediation and construction of parochial upbringing, of genetic and cultural history, of contingent biology, of the arbitrary settings (or are they quite so random as they seem?) of the cosmos itself? It's explored in a sketch, `Mister Volition' (1995, *Interzone*) and more wittily and painfully in *Reasons to be Cheerful* (1997, *Interzone*). The poignancy of that question is made especially piercing in `Silver Fire' (1995, *Interzone*), where Claire Booth, a kind of epidemiological private eye, tracks an outbreak of the 21st century equivalent of AIDS. Her conflict with 14-year-old daughter Laura, involved (this week, at least) with the New Hermetics cult, is spot-on:


Laura said, `Did you know that Isaac Newton spent more time on alchemy than he did on the theory of gravity?'

`Yes. Did you know he also died a virgin? Role models are great, aren't they?'

		Alex gave me a sideways warning look, but didn't buy in. [...]
		`But sure, it's fascinating to see some of the blind alleys people have
		Laura smiled at me pityingly.  *`Blind alleys!'* She finished picking the
toast crumbs off her plate, then she rose and left the room with a spring in her step, as if she'd won some kind of battle. [INDENT off]
Claire's world is our own, turned up a plausible notch. As the dreadful, incurable disease Silver Fire spreads, every fashionable poseur and media loony advances a mystery theory. In a fine pastiche of `theorists' such as the French Jean Baudrillard and the Australian McKenzie Wark, Egan's glib talking heads embrace the scourge as a postmodern medical condition, `the very first plague of the Information Age'. That turns out, hideously, to be correct, in a way. But the disease is symptomatic of a worse blight, a recurrent collapse of even advanced technological cultures into blind and blinding belief systems of astounding stupidity. `All it took,' Claire realises, `was the shock of grief to peel away the veneer of understanding: *Life is not a morality play. Disease is just disease; it carries no hidden meaning*... At some level, we still hadn't swallowed the hardest-won truth of all: *The universe is indifferent.*'

Yet if that is so, if we see faces in clouds and cracks just because our brains are hard-wired by mindless selective reproductive filters to give priority to any shape that looks like a face, to impose meaning on any pattern that looks like an intention, what happens to our self-estimate? Suppose homosexuality is, after all, most often a developmental pathway switched on by an unusual stressor in the mother's environment, triggering elevated levels of some hormone bathing the foetus? That makes gayness `natural', true, but also provides a way to prevent growing brains from turning along that path. What then of all the hard-won political victories, the heroic and joyful Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the brave, tortured cultural history obliterated within a generation in a kind of pre-emptive genocide? That's the quite realistic issue at the heart of `Cocoon' (1994, *Asimov's*), a cerebral *policier* that in other hands might have made a multi-million seller by Michael Crichton or Robin Cook, or indeed Martin Amis or Peter Ackroyd. (Hmmm...)

But then fiction written in the shadow and illumination of advanced science is sometimes obliged, in being true to its own strengths and possibilities, into an oppositional stance to traditional literary devices that faces off its forebears high and low. Consider the mockery of literary pretensions rather broadly sketched by venturesome posthuman scientists about to cast themselves, for the knowledge they will gain in the extended instant of their deaths, into a black hole, in the stylised and rebarbative novella `The Planck Dive', set in the same dazzling future as *Diaspora*. A blowhard `flesher' poet (hapless daughter apparently in tow) arrives from an Earth polis - rebuilt from an exabyte of data in a teleportive gamma-ray burst - to plague the exploratory crew with his sanctimonious epic ambitions:


Prospero began soberly. `For nigh on a thousand years, we... have dreamed in vain of a new Odyssey to inspire us, new heroes to stand beside the old, new ways to retell the eternal myths... But I have arrived in time to pluck your tale from the very jaws of gravity!'

Tiet said, `Nothing was at risk of being lost. Information about the Dive is being broadcast to every polis, stored in every library.' Tiet's icon was like a supple jewelled statue carved from ebony.

Prospero waved a hand dismissively. `A stream of technical jargon. In Athena, it might as well have been the murmuring of the waves.'

Tiet raised an eyebrow. `If your vocabulary is impoverished, augment it - don't expect us to impoverish our own. Would you give an account of classical Greece without mentioning the name of a single city state?'

		`No.  But those are universal terms, part of our common heritage--'
		`They're terms that have no meaning outside a tiny region of space, and a
brief period of time. Unlike the terms needed to describe the Dive, which are applicable to every quartic femtometre of spacetime.'

Prospero replied, a little stiffly, `Be that as it may, in Athena we prefer poetry to equations. And I have come to honour your journey in language that will resonate down the corridors of the imagination for millennia... I am a narratologist... I have come to create enigmas, not explanations. I have come to shape the story of your descent into a form that will live on long after your libraries have turned to dust... To extract the mythic essence, mere detail must become subservient to a deeper truth.'
[INDENT off]
Much later, falling into gravity's inexorable doom and loving every moment of it, Prospero's much put upon daughter, Cordelia, smiles. `Baudelaire can screw himself. I'm here for the physics.'

And physics is what Egan provides: scads of physics, physics at the margins of the known and beyond, physics rendered not much in story telling's ancient visceral imagination as in a cool, ironic allegory of equations tormented to the limit. This is a very odd textuality indeed, even for hardened sf readers. For literary chauvinists, it is doubtless as dull as it is abhorrent. For the adventurous, Egan's approach is worth persevering with, even if learning that we are not inviolate selves but a pandemonium or parliament of contesting inner voices, that we are constructed not given from eternity, that even universal mathematics might be as gapped and fissured as any poststructural text (`Luminous', 1995, *Asimov's*), once deeply shocking, has become familiar news.

And when the shock of the new starts to turn into the yawn of the been-there-done-that, surely a writer as important to sf as Greg Egan will start to notice, turn away from austere fable, move - as Greg Bear and Greg Benford and Greg Feeley have been doing, not always successfully - in the direction of more sumptuous literary and imaginative values, those contingent but time-tested techniques, which he parodies so cruelly in Prospero, that touch the heart on their way to the brain and back again.

Damien Broderick