The same caveat applies to this book as to every other Egan novel. If you are neither inherently fascinated by mathematics and physics taken past the bleeding edge, nor willing to tolerate possibly pages of physics discussion that you don’t get, then don’t read this novel. It’s not the book, it’s you – and that’s ok, it’s just not worth your while getting frustrated.
That said, if you’re willing to dive in, I think this is another of Egan’s awesome novels. Spoilers coming.
The premise is that at the end of the 30th century, there are some humans we would see as ‘normal’ – called fleshers here; there are more ‘people’ who inhabit the polises, which are basically massive computers – so yes, they’re virtual, from our current perspective. And there are also gleisners, who inhabit robot bodies. The plot is driven by the perspective of a couple of polis citizens; indeed it begins with the creation of an ‘orphan’, a citizen in a polis created with no input from any parental guidelines but by the polis itself, basically to test new possibilities. This orphan, who becomes Yatima, is a primary protagonist.
Some reviewers over on goodreads have been frustrated by the lack of fiction, or plot, in this story, and I can see where they’re coming from. However, there is a plot, and even if sometimes it takes something of a backseat to the ideas – well, that’s kinda the deal with an Egan story. But it’s not superfluous in any way. So what is it? Well, a gleisner astronomical survey indicates that two neutron stars are about to collapse into each other, several million years earlier than they ought to. They’re frighteningly close to the earth, and it does indeed do very bad things to the planet when the gamma rays etc get here. From this, eventually, there is a diaspora as people (broadly understood) attempt to understand this event and how to survive future ones and also, just Going Out into the universe as humanity has always dreamed of doing. Interesting things are discovered, of course.
This brings me to a rant about the blurb. It suggests that Yatima is searching for a world where no “acts of God” will occur. Um, no. If anyone is searching for that it’s Orlando, a flesher who goes into a polis after the catastrophe. But even that does absolutely no justice to anyone’s motivation. So… all I can think is that the blurber had no idea what to say about the book, and was told to focus on the plot (which they didn’t understand) rather than the ideas. This is my contempt you’re feeling right now.
And then there are the big questions Egan plays with. Some of these are things he’s actively working through over the novel, while others are things he simply takes for granted. For me, as always, his approach to gender is the most striking on a plot level. Because it’s one of the issues he simply takes for granted. Humanity living in a software-created virtual world? Why on earth would they keep to rigid binary (yes I know, all the caveats about it not actually being binary) understandings of gender? So most of the polis citizens are referred to as “ve” – and things happen to “ver” while belongings are “vis”, which is very neat. There are some who are gendered; Orlando, perhaps understandably, can’t shed his original gendered self perception; there are some polis-born citizens who also insist on it, and they’re regarded as frankly a bit weird. I adore this aspect.
The virtual nature of much of the story could lead to a complete divorcing from the physical, which is an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about since reading Nike Sulway’s Tiptree speech: the issue of divorcing matter and mind. However, I think Egan does a good job here of not doing so – and indeed of interrogating the issue. The polis inhabitants do still interact with matter, and it is important to them; there are discussions about the importance, or not, of interacting with the real and whether postulating crazy things like more dimensions than we can see or interact with is just offensive. Most polis citizens respect the material world even if they experience it differently from fleshers. And the diaspora, even if it takes places as (basically) flying computers, also interacts with the real and physical in important, fundamental and profound ways. So, go you, Egan, for not just going the lazy cyberpunk route.
Did I mention that this book takes place quite seriously over about two millennia, and then speeds up at the end to encompass even more time? What a head spin.
Some of the physics stuff he discusses: astronomy – especially the neutron star bits; extrasolar planets; alien life, including evolution and non-carbon-based possibilities; wormholes; quarks, leptons, fermions etc; and the possibility of other universes and how they would interact, or not, with the one we inhabit.
On that note, I can’t help but feel that this must to some extent be Egan’s answer to, or take, on Flatland. Indeed he references the idea of “flatland” at one stage. Because some of the characters are forced to interact with beings existing in 5 dimensions, and how are you going to do that? So that’s a really nice aspect for those who have read that somewhat obscure adventure into dimensional maths.
Some of the other ideas that Egan confronts: human evolution, both ‘natural’ and deliberate, and what that will mean for the various branches communicating with each other; the place of art and of mathematics; cloning, and its possibilities; parenthood and the nature of being an orphan; individuality and community.
I told you this was a dense, complex, and – I mean it – ambitious work, right? You can get it from Fishpond.