Greg Egan, |
Dark Integers & Other Stories
(Subterranean Press, 2008; Far Territories, 2009)
In this, my first exposure to the work of Greg Egan, I discovered that even a math-challenged, former liberal arts major such as myself can find enjoyment in stories that use a lot of phrases like "omega-inconsistent number theory," "strong bullet femtomachines" and "eight-dimensional hypercube," so long as the plots that such terms are factored into make some overarching sense in the end.
Through five stories with original publication dates ranging from 1995 to 2007, Egan displays considerable ingenuity in crafting 1) two adventures with continuing characters on a near-future Earth, most of whose inhabitants do not realize is in the midst of a Cold War with an alternate universe where mathematical truths are not quite the same; 2) two examinations of unconnected events in a nearly galaxywide civilization, where functional immortality and the availability of interstellar travel as encoded data makes coming up with interesting things to do more challenging than you might think; and 3) a planet colonized long ago by humans who aren't quite sure how they got there anymore, who have adapted themselves physiologically to the point where the phrase "she's got him by the balls" takes on a whole new meaning, and who have developed a religion based on a phenomenon that cannot stand the light of rationalization.
As out-there as the science fictional underpinnings of these stories are, most of the tales hold together as well as they do because Egan keeps tight rein on even the most technobabbly of his tools: they exist to serve the characters and the always-sensible drive of their actions, rather than having the characters exist merely to expound on how neat their improbable environments, alien neighbors and toys are. But it is important that those environments, aliens and toys really are neat, because Egan's undeniable creativity in bending the physics of time and space, and in making you believe that the outcomes of his plots have implications far beyond the few, all-too-human characters that they center on, often falls short in making the characters themselves seem three-dimensional. Most of them come across as either too big-brained to get along with us mundanes, too mopey to come out their self-absorbed shells or too jaded by too much life to see any action through to the end.
Slightly weak characters aside, there are many fine moments of suspenseful action, gee-whiz invention and thoughtful reverie here, plus enough nuances of cyberpunk, space opera and sociological sci-fi that readers with tastes ranging from Gibson to Brin to Le Guin should all find something worth relishing.
8 November 2008
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