Saturday, June 02, 2007

E is for Egan

I was thinking, here is an opportunity to demonstrate that I do not live entirely in the past. Look, here is an author who is still alive! He’s even got his own web page. See, I am reading the hip and happening authors of today. Then I realised that it has been about ten years since I started reading Greg Egan, and I can’t think of any significant writers that I started reading since then. So I am not hip or happening or up to the moment at all.

Who is Greg Egan? He is the culmination of a century of development of science fiction in english. I think of him as the Last of the Science Fiction Writers, since I can’t imagine anyone following in his footsteps. He is about the only person I can think of writing science fiction, defined narrowly as follows:

A. Postulate a scientific advance.

B. Examine the consequences of this advance on the way people (Defined broadly: automata and Uplifted gila monsters count, for instance.) think and behave and live their lives.

The problems with doing this today are twofold.

Firstly, the science has gotten more and more complicated. Just try to explain the plot of any Greg Egan story to someone who hasn’t read it. Luminous, for example. See how you get on. It is a lot of work getting on top of the science, and when you do, 90% of your readers won’t know what you are on about, anyways, so why not write fantasy instead.

Secondly, our technology has now reached the point where it is indistinguishable from magic, even for us. Any future technology is in the same boat. Much simpler just to make it magic, and write fantasy instead.

I guess reading Greg Egan more or less made me give up trying to write science fiction.

Let’s see, I think my favourite Greg Egan book is the one I first read while staying at Androo’s place back in 1998 (Thanks Androo!), Diaspora. I love the way it starts out with you thinking, ‘My God, this world is so very very very strange: where can we go from here?’ but soon the very very very strange world becomes familiar to you, and is then the safe and familiar world as the story flies onward and upward into a universe that is very very very much stranger than the world we started in.
I once went to a seminar entitled ‘Intelligent Polysaccharides’, but the speaker had another common Chinese name, not Wang, and the polysaccharides were rather less intelligent than the ones in Diaspora. I am fond of those intelligent polysaccharides.

Teranesia I read most of in the boot of a car on the way from Punchbowl to Cronulla. (Don’t worry, this was several years before the December 2005 riots: I wasn’t an unwilling passenger of any gang members of middle-eastern appearance. My sister and her kids were visiting, and we only had one rather small car for the lot of us on our trip to the beach.) I didn’t like it as much as Diaspora, because it has a fair bit of the two things that bug me about Greg Egan’s stuff.

1: An undue degree of credulity toward airy-fairy gee-whiz interpretations of quantum mechanics. All sorts of popular science books and articles champion the ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’ of quantum mechanics as if it was as firm a piece of science as continental drift. It is not. The idea of the collapse of the wavefunction and the priviliged role of the observer in this collapse is just one way of looking at the problem. Einstein didn’t think there was anything in it. Feynman didn’t think there was anything in it. I got a bit muddled reading his book, but I think Bell (of Bell’s Theorem) had problems with it too. Needless to say, I don’t like it either. Though of course the argument from authority is the weakest form of argument, it is hard to do otherwise with a theory that no one really understands. While quantum mechanics is admittedly wacky and paradoxical, I think a lot of its paradoxical aspects will ultimately turn out to be due to us being muddled, not the universe being muddled. And when a story turns on a point of science that I believe is really just a muddle in our understanding of the science, I am dissatisfied.

2: A cluelessness about people who do not share his worldview. In Teranesia, and in a lot of the other Greg Egan stuff set in the near now, there is a struggle between the embattled forces of reason and the forces of unreason. But the forces of reason are too narrowly defined as a group of people who all think very much the same, and the forces of unreason are an undifferentiated mass that is completely off with the fairies. There is no real continuum of opinion, as you would expect in a real world. There are no reasonable religious opinions.* What’s more, the forces of unreason lump together people who would despise one another much more than they would despise Our Heroes: postmodernists and fundamentalist Christians, for example. An even more egregious example of this than Teranesia is Stephen Baxter’s novel Titan, which I bought on the basis of a glowing review in New Scientist. It was impossible to take seriously because of the implausible treatment of the ‘forces of unreason’. If you want to know how this looks like from the other side, I once read the first third of a book recommended to me by a friend attending a Pentecostal church which was about a struggle between the embattled forces of the godly and the forces of the ungodly. Unfortunately I can’t remember what it was called. The ungodly characters simultaneously argued staunchly for Darwinism, and sought guidance by channeling their spirit guides. That is of the same order of plausibility as the worldviews of the Other Side in Teranesia.

Greg Egan’s first book is out of print, but you should read it if you can, especially if you went to high school in Australia. It is not really science fiction: it is more like the work of Daniel Pinkwater than anything else.

And one of my very favourite bits of Egan’s work is this definition of an archetypal narrative, from The Planck Dive:

Prospero spread his arms in a conciliatory gesture. “An archetypal quest narrative must be kept simple. To burden it with technicalities—”

Sachio inclined his head briefly, fingertips to forehead, downloading information from the polis library. “Do you have any idea what archetypal narratives are?”

“Messages from the gods, or from the depths of the soul; who can say? But they encode the most profound and mysterious—”

Sachio cut him off impatiently. “They're the product of a few chance
attractors in flesher neurophysiology. Whenever a more complex or subtle story was disseminated through an oral culture, it would eventually degenerate into an archetypal narrative. Once writing was invented, they were only ever created deliberately by fleshers who failed to understand what they were. If all of antiquity's greatest statues had been dropped into a glacier, they would have been reduced to a predictable spectrum of spheroidal pebbles by now; that does not make the spheroidal pebble the pinnacle of the artform. What you've created is not only devoid of truth, it's devoid of aesthetic merit.”

*: If you want to say, Dawkins-like ‘That’s because there are no reasonable religious opinions’, then I guess I could say: ‘There are no religious opinions defended by rational argument.’

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