Another in my long slog towards Reading Everything By Greg Egan, Dammit.
When I started this last week, I was completely thrown: it was familiar. Like, I had definitely read this before. Yet I had definitely got it from the TBR shelf, so… wha? I thought about it, and I didn’t remember the ending, but let’s be honest – that’s not exactly unusual for me. So I read a few more pages – still familiar. I read ahead 20 or so pages – getting less familiar. Eh; I decided just to keep reading, and see what happened. Turns out that at some point, I read the first 50 or so pages, and then gave up. I have no idea why I would have given up at that point, because it’s not even like this is a particularly hard book as Egans go.
That is to say, if you don’t like entire pages of dense scientific discussion and you’re not the sort of person who is happy to skim that to get back to the plot, do not read this book. It’s ok; it’s no reflection on you; it’s just not going to be a happy match-up between the two of you and it’s not worth your time getting annoyed.
Even more than any other Egan until the Orthogonal books (The Clockwork Rocket and Eternal Flame), half of this book is unashamedly working through a scientific revolution. In a society where things just are the way they are and curiosity isn’t rewarded – cooperation and teamwork are, hormonally – one misfit manages to co-opt a fellow worker into being curious about the way weight changes in different parts of their habitat, and… from there, you get an explosion of scientific discoveries. How does that even work? What sort of questions do you even need to ask in order to discover basic principles of gravity, for instance? Egan throws himself, and the reader, into these issues – without forgetting that they occur in a vacuum, and therefore also incorporating discussions of social change and disruption and, because this is Egan and it’s just what he does, a bit of gender role discussion as well.
Seriously. This man.
The other half of the book is a slightly more straightforward SF plot, where the far-future equivalent of a bored early-20-something seems to handed the puzzle of a lifetime and he sets off on a joyride around the galaxy, complete with sidekick. Well, not quite, but close. You could definitely take these chapters and have a fairly good SF novel, anyway, about the differences between living in the disk of the Milky Way and living in the bulge, and how you might go about being a detective with all sorts of cool gadgets (wait til you read about the telescope they construct). The reference to the sidekick is a little unfair; Parantham is not just along to have ideas bounced off. He/she is an undeveloped character in many ways; not descended from DNA but rather – to put it crudely – from AI, Parantham allows Egan to suggest issues around body perception and suchlike but doesn’t do that issue justice. The not-quite adolescent, Rakesh, verges on petulant and annoying and just manages to avoid being such, most of the time. Their interactions are interesting enough and certainly add a different dimension to the novel overall.
In the end, I enjoyed this. It’s not Egan’s greatest, by any stretch. It’s a clever way of thinking through some scientific issues, and it has some nice character moments. Probably not the place to start with reading Egan, though.
I really thought this was going to end with Rakesh helping the people of the Splinter, and with a discussion of the role of the Aloof. As the pages kept turning and there was no actual contact, I just could not figure out where Egan was going with it. When I got to the last page, I admit I was flummoxed at first. But then I realised: Rakesh had been interacting with much later generations of the Splinter. They weren’t happening at the same time, at any point! Not that Egan had ever suggested they were, of course. I quite liked this.