Tag Archives: greg egan

Galactic Suburbia 119

Belated show notes!
In which there are fast cars, ancillary swords, Vote! Helsinki! t-shirts, feminist serial killer narratives and answer the all important question: was watching all of Lost worth it, Alisa? You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.

Defying Doomsday funded!

Tiptree Award
Philip K Dick:

Alex’s plan for Hugo reading.

Upcoming episode: being ok with being feminist. Request for links! Send us vids, articles, book titles etc. to recommend to teens.

Vote for Helsinki for Worldcon 2017!

What Culture Have we Consumed?

Tansy: Avengers: Age of Ultron, DC: Convergence, The Fall (Netflix Original)
Alisa: Reign, Lost
Alex: Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie; Incandescence, Greg Egan; Book of Strange New Things, Michael Faber; Fast&Furious 7; Avengers: Age of Ultron

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Incandescence

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.

UnknownThat 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.

SPOILER –>

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.

Galactic Suburbia 104

In which we gaze into the World of the Future with a double dose of Culture Consumed and Culture Yet To Consume. Get us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.

Culture We Are Looking Forward To

Alex: new James SA Corey; Isobelle Carmody’s last Obernewtyn novel; every TPP; Guardians of the Galaxy; Snowpiercer; Saga.

Tansy: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison; Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire; Ben Peek, The Godless; Sailor Moon

Alisa: Extant

Culture We Have Consumed

Alisa: Twinmaker, Sean Williams

Alex: holidays!! Diaspora, Greg Egan; The Reluctant Swordsman, Dave Duncan; James Tiptree Award Anthology 3

Tansy: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet.

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Diaspora, Greg Egan

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.

Greg Egan_1998_DiasporaThe 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. 

Greg Egan: Quarantine

I think – in all my vast understanding of the world – that one of the things that really sets Greg Egan apart is his willingness to drive real physics to its ruthless end.

This is not to say anything against his plots or his characters. On the contrary, I think Egan does utterly absorbing plots and some remarkable characters. But so do other SF writers. There are few others, though, who combine this with a determination to take real-world physics and drive them a long, long way.

200px-Quarantine_(Greg_Egan_novel)_cover_artQuarantine is a case in point. Take the idea that quantum mechanics suggests, that of collapsing probabilities as a wave function and the role of the observer in doing so. (Dear scientists, if I have just or am about to claim the equivalent of the Dark Ages being a real thing, please let me know and forgive me at the same time.) This leads to the many-worlds theory, whereby every action spawns alternate worlds where that action was done differently.

Now extrapolate to its ruthless conclusion.

Now add a detective thriller plot.

Now add a world in which there are no stars – they went out some decades ago.

Add the ability to mod your brain (turn off boredom, modulate emotions, change memories and attachments).

Add a world where Arnhem Land has become an autonomous nation and offered part of its land to become New Hong Kong.

… and you begin to get an idea of what Quarantine is like. Seriously, just a few of those things could make for a great novel. But they’re all there. Some are just part of the world-building, some are fundamental to the plot, all work cohesively together to produce a book that I read in a day (it’s only 250 pages, ok? And there are no formulae in this one, unlike the Orthogonal books).

I am never bored by Greg Egan, I am never impatient with Greg Egan, I am consistently surprised by Greg Egan. This is another good one.

You can get Quarantine from Fishpond.

Galactic Suburbia 86

In which we feed the feedback, unpack the Hugo packet, and put Jane Austen on a bank note. You can get us from iTunes or over at Galactic Suburbia.

What Caught Our Eye:

Twitter… the abuse of Caroline Criado-Perez

Chief Commissioner – Have a look at yourself

Mary Beard Will Tell Your Mum How You Behave on Twitter

Feedback!

We appreciate every email sent to us, even if we very rarely do this thing we are doing, and read them out. But this time we did that thing!

Culture Consumed:

Alex: Eternal Flame, Greg Egan; the rest of the Alanna books, Tamora Pierce; Pacific Rim

Tansy: Hugo packet reading – short story, novelette, novella, also Splendid Chaps Seven/Religion, & new social justice pop culture Aussie blog No Award.

Alisa: Hugo Packet including novels

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

The Eternal Flame

The following will include spoilers for The Clockwork Rocket, which I discussed over here.

A universe where parts of the spectrum of light travel at different speeds. A race where mothers cannot exist. Vector diagrams. They’re overused, but I’ll use them anyway: Egan is nothing if not ambitious and audacious.

Unknown A warning: the same issues that pertained to Clockwork crop up here. It is most definitely not a book that will work for everyone. You have to fall within a fairly specific range of readers: either someone who really enjoys thinking about physics and won’t be weirded out by the bizarre physics Egan is working through here; OR someone who is willing to skim over the vector diagrams and other physics-lecture bits, and just enjoy the story. Personally, I’m the latter. And the only reason I was willing and able to push through the physics was because I trust Egan to give me a really worthwhile story between, or around, it. I kind of imagined that I was listening to a really, really interesting person who occasionally meandered into talking about stuff I didn’t get, but was bound to get back to the good stuff eventually. And I was right.

The point of the Orthogonal series is to explore two central ideas: how the universe might be different if the speed of light isn’t constant; and how society might be different if mothers didn’t exist – or rather, they cease to exist at the point of childbirth. The story revolves around these two issues, and does so in occasionally remarkable ways. The physics aspect is very much an intellectual exercise; if there is commentary on modern science, aside from the obvious bureaucracy-getting-in-the-way, I missed it through not understanding enough of it. The biological/social aspect, though, includes a huge amount of commentary on modern Western gender relations, and it’s confronting, frightening, and sometimes scathing. I loved it.

Clockwork ended with a crew aboard the Peerless – a mountain launched into space – setting out with the objective of experimenting and thus hoping to find a solution to the probable destruction of their home world by an oncoming storm of meteors. This is only possible because of the different way light and time work in their universe; by moving away and then retuning home, much more time will have passed for them than on the planet. Because of the discoveries and attitudes, I’ve seen this book described as mirroring the Newtonian/seventeenth century European scientific revolution, which I think makes some sense but I wouldn’t push it too far. Along with the very pressing problem of saving the world, the crew carry in their bodies another issue – an issue that was only just being recognised as an issue: the fact that a mother’s flesh splits into her (usually four) children at ‘birth’. Mixing up the historical periods, this might be seen as somewhat comparable to the long period between Mary Wollstonecraft (late eighteenth century) and the suffrage movement of the early twentieth century (…. would that make Yalda both Ada Lovelace and Millicent Fawcett?? I Unknown Ada Lovelaceam loving this idea, daft as it is). Women are starting to think that there might be alternatives to simply living with their co and eventually becoming their children.*

To continue this intriguing historical comparison, Eternal Flame is scientifically moving into an Einstein/Hubble frame of thinking, and socially (I can’t believe the gall of this sentence) into the second-wave feminism of the 1970s (I wish there was an author in the story that I could tag as Joanna Russ, but there’s not). In physics, in particular, there are astounding discoveries being made about the properties of light and heat which are beginning to have profound ramifications for how they think about solving their problem (problems actually, since they also left their planet with no way of getting back with the solution…). Socially, the crew has pretty much always accepted women as being just as worthy in science and other jobs as their male counterparts – not least because many of the crew, especially in the sciences, were women. However, biology is still an issue. The original women used a drug, holin, in order to delay the onset of fission (birth). By this stage – three generations later – still use holin but are also basically starving themselves, for two reasons: both to delay birth, and in the hope that their fission will result in two, rather than four, children. Because the Peerless has experienced a population explosion, and they cannot support every pair becoming five. So (to get back to my comparison), the right of a woman to decide when to have children is one of the big issues – as it was with the introduction of the pill and the controversy over abortion (which I know is still ongoing).**

There are three narrative strands going on here, which frequently intersect but deal with different issues for the ship. I assume they’re meant to be of equal importance, but I’ll be honest and say the one that dealt the most with pretty full-on physics definitely took a bit of a backseat for me, even though I could see how vital it was to the story’s point. Carlo is investigating biology and fertility; both the fact that animals appear to exchange information somehow via infrared… something… and the fact that some animals seem to have adapted to biparous fission very easily. Tamara is an astronomer who observes a massive object outside in the void, and develops an audacious plan to use it somehow. Carla, a physicist, is investigating the properties of light and energy and challenging a lot of preconceived notions in the process.

The novel as a whole does involve a lot of physics-lecture stuff. There really are a lot of vector diagrams, and graphs demonstrating energy levels, and… other things. The biology doesn’t get quite the same treatment, perhaps because it’s not quite so radically different from our world. However, the science is not the be-all of the novel – if it had been I probably wouldn’t have persevered. There’s a bit of action, with an excursion out to the Object Tamara observed and some other dangerous moments for characters I had grown fond of. There’s some great character development, in particular as different people consider the biology issues for themselves and reflect on what it means for them individually and as a society; a few make very surprising decisions that are nonetheless entirely consistent. Being set on a spaceship, large as it is, means that the story is necessarily constrained; keeping the focus on three main protagonists helps with it not feeling claustrophobic but rather focussed, which is also aided by making them active in such different spheres. The physics and biology dominate, as discussed; there are also undercurrents of the frustrations of bureaucracy and the impact of history – after all, this is a generation of people working towards solving a problem for a world they have never known.

If you want to be read a science fiction series that will really challenge you scientifically while also (largely) being very readable, coming complete with a compelling storyline, this is it.

You can get The Eternal Flame at Fishpond.

*I’m well aware that this is grossly unfair and generalising to the women before Wollstonecraft, and in fact Egan does not make it nearly so clear-cut; as with real European history, there have always been women who bucked the trend in this world, too.

**I have no idea where Egan could go with this historical comparison for the next book. Still, it was fun while it lasted.***

***I’m not suggesting Egan did this deliberately. I’m quite sure he didn’t.

Zendegi: a Greg Egan novel

Unknown 4.26.07 PM

My e-copy of this book categorises it as “Fantasy; short stories.” It is neither. Rather, it is a near-future novel about politics, virtual reality, religion, family relationships, and death.

No, it is not a Patrick Rothfuss or George RR Martin-style tome. It is elegant.

Two strands: Nasim is an Iranian woman living in America, working on the mapping of individual finch brains to try and create a generic brain map. Martin is an Australian journalist working in Iran, who gets to cover escalating political unrest. (This book was published in 2010….) Flick forward several years, and Nasim is living in Iran and now working on Zendegi, a virtual-reality platform used by millions of people, mostly for entertainment. Martin is still in Iran, married with a son. I trusted that the two strands would eventually cross, but I really couldn’t figure out how. The answer is both ‘cleverly’ and ‘via tragedy’ (Egan, you are nasty).

I am in serious danger of becoming quite the Egan fangirl. Just so you all know.

Egan does a marvellous job here of entwining the intimate and domestic with large-scale societal issues. Personal tragedies are neither hyped up to become world-ending nor elided as insignificant. The plot moves carefully between, for example, Zendegi as entertainment for a six year old and Zendegi as bleeding-edge technology – and how the company can deal with competitors. Egan portrays politics as they are seen by a slightly-above-average interested citizen, rather than focussing on politicians; he touches on religion as it might be experienced, rather than trying to show rights and wrongs. He’s a sensitive and compassionate author, but did I mention nasty? Also, I think he writes women well, which is something I’m coming to appreciate more and more. Nasim’s feelings of anxiety over having left Iran, and wanting to return, read realistically. In fact, overall human attitudes and relationships read as believable: complex and contradictory and frustrating and glorious.

In a more classically cyberpunk novel, Zendegi would get far more of the focus that it does here; characters don’t actually spend that much time in the virtual world, for example. It is incredibly significant for both Martin and Nasim by the end, but still I am a little surprised by its use as the title. I think Egan has hit on a more likely way for virtual entertainment to encroach on our lives than most early cyberpunkers did – more subtle, and perhaps more insidious for the fact. It’s really nicely presented.

This is a novel brimful of complex and challenging ideas that is an absolute, pretty much effortless, delight to read.

You can buy Zendegi from Fishpond.

Galactic Suburbia 52

In which we pop the cork on the champagne bottle to welcome in the beginning of the 9 month science fiction awards season – hooray! You can get us from iTunes or stream from Galactic Suburbia.

News

Responses to the Galactic Suburbia Award.

Crawford nominees and winner: Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique.

BSFA nominees

SF Translation Awards Fundraiser – donate and win awesome books

The Kitschies: yes really, rum and tentacles.

LOCUS Recommended Reading List! [and Poll]

Young Australian of the Year who founded Robogals: Marita Cheng

Women of SF in their own words, reviewed by Brit Mandelo

Diana Peterfreund: following up on Brave New Love [and how the internet often fails to pick up the pieces after a controversy has died down]

Women Writing Horror (it’s new, who knew?)
[and the other Guardian article patronising genre readers, taken apart by Smart Bitches Trashy Books]

10 Great SF books for “girls”

Creature Court trilogy giveaway – we’ll be drawing it next episode, email us to tell us about one book you read because of us & you’ll enter the draw to win all three books by Tansy

Creature Court Spoilerific Blog Post – only for those who have read Creature Court Book Three, Reign of Beasts, by Tansy Rayner Roberts

What Culture Have we Consumed?

Alisa: Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby; The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson

Alex: Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan; A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, Ursula le Guin; The Business of Death, Trent Jamieson; Skyrim
Tansy: Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti; Batgirl: the Lesson; Redwood & Wildfire by Andrea Hairston; Blake’s 7: The Turing Test [Big Finish], Doctor Who: Foe From the Future [Big Finish]

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

The Clockwork Rocket

One thing must be noted about Greg Egan’s fiction in general, and this book in particular. He, and it, are uncompromising. In reading it the audience must be one of two things: able and willing to understand complex physics, or willing to accept that they do not understand those physics and carry on with the story regardless. If you are not in either of those two camps, The Clockwork Rocket is most definitely not for you and Egan makes no apology for that. This is a book that comes with diagrams. (For reference, I fall into the second camp. It’s a long time since I did any physics seriously.)

This is a story set in a universe different from ours in one very crucial aspect: the speed of light is not a constant. In many respects, this book (the first of a trilogy) represents the working out of the consequences inherent in that seemingly simple fact – to the point where a large chunk of the book is actually just that: a physics student exploring the ramifications of observed phenomena on the possibilities of time and space.However, were this novel merely an amusing exercise for the physics lover, I would not have persevered. Along with the physics, Egan has incorporated some rather profound discussion of gender and reproduction, all within a quite compelling story about saving the world.

Why does the world require saving? Egan takes the ancient fear that comets herald the end of the world and makes it true (…maybe). At the start of the story, the occasional streaking light is seen in the night sky; over time, with more appearing, these streaks come to be called Hurtlers. This increase in number, and in brightness, leads some people to wonder about exactly what is causing them, and whether it might lead to problems for the world in the future. The protagonist, Yalda, is the one to realise that yes, these Hurtlers may actually represent her world’s doom, and she and others start work on an audacious plan to attempt that doom’s subversion. The plot follows Yalda’s initial experience of education, her move to university, and on into theoretical physics and astronomical research, for roughly the first half of the book. The second half is concerned with Yalda and friends convincing people of the truth of the problem, and of their proposed solution: build a rocket, send it out, and have it return in a few years of world time. Because of the non-constant speed of light, if the rocket is accelerated to a sufficiently high speed many generations will pass on the rocket – and those generations will have the time to do the necessary research to avert disaster planet-side. (If it sounds like I’m spoiling a major plot point, occurring late as it does in the book, fear not: this is all mentioned in the book’s blurb. My guess is that it was put there to encourage readers to push on through the theoretical physics in the knowledge that honestly, there really is a plot here, too. Also, if you’re about to raise issues with the physics – don’t. I’m just telling you what Egan sets out in the book, and I do not have enough physics myself to be able to point out possible flaws in his logic.) Naturally, the course of research never does run smooth, so Yalda and friends experience problems – deliberate and accidental – as well as the frustrations familiar to any scientific pioneers. They do eventually get off the ground, and I think it’s fair to say that much of the most interesting plot occurs onboard the titular rocket.

Egan has not transplanted Earth to his new universe. The world of the story, and the people, are just different enough to be disquietingly alien. Plants emit light at night. People have variable morphologies: if an extra pair of hands is needed for a task, it can be extruded. And, most profoundly, children are formed directly from the mother’s body: she becomes essentially a cocoon, and then splits into four, to create new beings. Ideally, she produces two sets of male and female pairs. When each of these females in turn is ready, she and her co (male partner) meld and she likewise splits into four – and the children will then be raised by her co. Like me, perhaps one of your first reactions is to cry ‘incest’. However, there is no sexuality on this planet, so it’s quite a different situation; our ideas of sexual and familial separation are irrelevant. There are a lot of interesting repercussions of this form of procreation. For me, the most intriguing issue raised is the issue of gender. Children are born from one half of the pair, and that one is called the mother; this is similar to humanity, and perhaps warrants Egan’s use of the feminine pronoun. However, the co raises the children – generally also seen as primarily a mother’s job in humanity – and the suggestion that females could take on this role is seen as entirely unnatural. There is also little suggestion throughout the book that there is anything other than this reproductive role to distinguish between male and female; females do not seem to be subordinated in terms of schooling, for example, simply because they are female, although they may be subject to harsh penalties if they appear to be rejecting their biological destiny. This may be similar to some extremist views today about women being fit only to bear children, but here it’s not the only thing they are capable of doing but rather the genuinely last thing they ever will – and in some sense what they are intended, ultimately, to do. It doesn’t need to be explained, I imagine, that the existence of a drug that can stall their reproductive splitting (there needs to be a word like bifurcate – quartofurcate?) is contentious to the point of immorality or illegality (it’s a bit blurry which). Egan is setting some very provocative questions here about the nature of gender and reproduction and parenting (single parents are the norm!). This is not to say that his ideas and choices are always unproblematic; the very nature of reproduction was troubling, for me, although Egan makes it clear there is no pain involved. And all of this, all of this normal way of being, is off balance right from the start by the main character Yalda, because she is a single: when her mother split, only three children were created. She has no co, and is therefore alternately pitied and reviled. Partly as a consequence of this, she gets the opportunity for a more advanced education than might otherwise have been possible – a bit like having an independent income and a room of one’s own. As often happens, the slightly-outsider character allows for a more interesting perception on the society.

Overall, I really loved this novel. Yes, there were pages where I skimmed the intense physics discussions, because vector diagrams just don’t do it for me. But the character of Yalda, and a desire to find out exactly where all of this was heading, kept me reading – and will make me get the second book as soon as humanly possible.