book review: the clockwork rocket

What I love about reading Greg Egan books is reading about creatures that are psychologically very recognizable but physically alien. In other books this comes through reading about robots and software, but The Clockwork Rocket is about a species of blobby aliens living in a universe where different colours of light have different speeds.

On their world there are male and female aliens that I picture as macroscopic amoeba type things. Reproduction means the female splits into four children (two males and two females who are brought up as “co”s brother-sisters but also as future mates), whom the father then raises. Yalda is a female who doesn’t have a co. She grows up on a farm and moves to a city and becomes a scientist and eventually leads an expedition away from their world to try and save it from an impending disaster (by using the weird properties of the speed of light in their universe).

There are digressions exploring the nature of light and toroidal universes in this book. Some people might not like them. I did. I also loved the political explorations of birth-control in a species where having children necessarily means the death of the mother. It’s very much an ideas book, and there are sequels, which I’ll definitely read eventually.

book review: permutation city

Permutation City is a Greg Egan book about people creating copies of themselves to run in virtual worlds. The in real life part of it is partially set in Sydney right near where I live, which is kind of neat. Because it’s a Greg Egan book, there’s lot’s of talking about ideas of how we are what we think we are. This one’s got a little less oomph to it, but I expect that’s just because it’s from 1994.

One of the ideas he explores is about being able to edit your own personality completely as a digital entity. One of the (digital) characters has it set up so he pours himself drinks to change his mood. A whole liquor cabinet full of Optimism, Calm Acceptance, Driven to Succeed, which felt more natural to him than sitting at a mixing board style console to tweak his personality.

I love thinking about that whole digital consciousness stuff. Even if it’s infeasible in real life. In this book he talks about the different paths taken in virtual biology. Some people generate a bunch of ad-hoc processes to make you feel like you’re there, but another character is working in a virtual world with completely different laws of physics. She’s got a project trying to prove whether or not natural selection is possible in that universe with much less complex rules.

There’s lots of neat stuff here. Not my favourite Greg Egan, but still, damned good book.

book review: incandescence

I took a break from reading a Mary Shelley book because I needed something with a little less overwroughtness, and Greg Egan’s Incandescence was exactly the right thing to read. It’s about travel and about the joy of doing science.

See, there’s a rock. Inside this rock live a planet’s worth of creatures. They’re sort of collective-minded, gaining satisfaction from conservatively working together in teams. Their world is vaguely known to be a fragment of some larger world in the past but who the fuck knows? They know nothing about the wider universe. The majority of the novel is about these creatures developing the spark of curiosity to develop the geometry needed to save their world.

There’s another line of the story as well, which is about some galactic citizens learning about these aliens. This is where more of the Travel aspects come in, and also how the reader gets a bit of perspective on how fucking weird the place those aliens live is.

In all, this was the kind of science fiction story that seems really pure or something. It’s so about science. Greg Egan disdains people who dismiss it as impenetrable as being to chicken to read a novel with a notebook and pencil to work things out.

This leaves me wondering if they’ve really never encountered a book before that benefits from being read with a pad of paper and a pen beside it, or whether they’re just so hung up on the idea that only non-fiction should be accompanied by note-taking and diagram-scribbling that it never even occurred to them to do this. I realise that some people do much of their reading with one hand on a strap in a crowded bus or train carriage, but books simply don’t come with a guarantee that they can be properly enjoyed under such conditions. – Greg Egan “Anatomy of a Hatchet Job

I read most of the book on a plane without taking notes, but still enjoyed it (enjoyed it less than I did Diaspora, but still). A great book of ideas.

book review: quarantine

Quarantine is an earlyish Greg Egan book. I think. I found a terrible-condition copy at a used bookstore and I felt pretty sure I’d never seen another edition of it anywhere before, so yeah. It’s sort of a detective story/technothriller kind of thing based on quantum mechanics and the idea that every time people make choices and collapse waveforms we’re killing off whole universes. Also, at some point in the 2030s all the stars disappeared; the solar system was isolated in its own little bubble.

There was a lot of exposition and some good twists (by the end it doesn’t really feel like the book you started). Egan returned to similar themes in one of the stories in Crystal Nights, “Singleton” though I don’t think the stars being gone was a part of that. In fact that story felt like a mirror reflection of this novel.

book review: crystal nights

Greg Egan is amazing. I love his novels but his short stories seem almost more awesome because they get to crystallize some idea and let you spin it yourself. Crystal Nights and Other Stories is an excellent collection of science fiction. There are stories about interstellar travellers who explore a rogue planet through digitally transmitted personalities into grains of rice and insects. There are stories about having an artificial intelligence child when you are worried about what the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics implies about all those yous for whom life hasn’t worked out so great. There’s a story about an alternate version of Alan Turing and C.S. Lewis and how faith you cling to desperately utterly fucks one of them up. Such a good book. It’s the kind of thing that might make you want to read science fiction if you didn’t already. Or maybe I’m projecting too much into that. I’m going to recommend it far too much for a while.

book review: axiomatic

Another book I grabbed at the CBC Calgary Book Sale last month, Axiomatic is a collection of short stories by Greg Egan. The first time I read this book was when I was in Turkey. I’d never heard of Greg Egan and then these stories of jewels in brains and designer viruses and belief attractor zones were so intensely weird. Now, after reading a small pile of Greg Egan novels, I realize these stories are actually the more accessible chunk of his work.

There are two stories that are very similar in the collection. Both are about runners going into a disaster zone. Both involve describing these weird landscapes formed by the anomalous event. This was the only part of the book I wasn’t a big fan of, feeling like I’d already read that. It sort of highlighted the “ideas man” aspect of his writing. Apart from that one near repeat, the book was as good as I remembered it, and I’m super glad I own it now, since it’s long out-of-print.

book review: schild's ladder

Schild’s Ladder is another Greg Egan book that was just awesome. In the first couple of chapters a group of scientists (very small scientists so they don’t need a very large spacecraft) perform an experiment that ends up oh, well, destroying the fabric of the universe. This disaster spreads at 50% light speed across the galaxy, consuming everything in its path. Then we jump to different characters who’ve been living with this thing that’s happening for centuries. There are different factions trying to figure out how to stop the boundary from expanding and others who’re content to run at 95% light speed, and our protagonist who wonders what’s on the other side. So fucking good.

The titular ladder is a way of transporting a vector so it stays parallel. Wonkiness of geometry means that if you take a different path, even though it remains parallel, you won’t end up in the same space. It’s all about travel really, and staying the same no matter how much you change and how much anyone else does.