There is no doubting Greg Egan’s views. All of his short fiction and novels incorporating detailed scientific theories and concepts (actual and playful), he is this generation’s leading writer of hard sci-fi. But that he goes out of his way to denounce religion through fiction is what makes him one of the genre’s most politicized authors, as well. Subverting religious concepts with the knowledge mankind has gained through science, there is even the ostensible idea that mankind would be better off without religion. Synthesized into the story of a young man growing up in a culture with a Christian-esque belief, Egan’s 1998 novella Oceanic is a prime example of his worldview in fictional form. (Please note this review is for the novella Oceanic, and not the short story collection of the same name by Egan.)
A brief but impacting bildungsroman, Oceanic tells of Martin and the effect religion has on his life as he grows older. Uncanny, Egan captures perfectly the Pentecostal belief in story form. ‘Baptized’, accepting God into his heart, and ‘speaking in tongues’ before leaving home, the fundamental elements of the sect are presented in analogous form in Martin’s life and culture. Consistent throughout, Egan keeps the story’s perspective on the personal and religious as Martin moves from boyhood and into the secular world. Through this coming of age, his beliefs run a gauntlet of tests, none perhaps greater than his chosen profession.
The only real weakness to Oceanic is the manner in which Egan inevitably subverts Martin’s beliefs. All the author’s readers knowing what’s coming, it’s slightly disappointing that the hinge on which the story climaxes is the only ‘fantastic’ element of the story. It does not translate to our world, and in effect distancing the wonderful analogy built prior. Otherwise, Egan’s style is polished and smooth (not something I often accuse him of) and the structure of the story shifts near effortlessly to accompany Martin’s development.
In the end, Oceanic is a story focused on life and religion in a culture analogous to any in the Anglo-Saxon world. Egan creates a plausible society in effective, consistent terms that leaves plenty of room for imagination while fleshing out the ideas relevant to the content he’s unearthing in Martin’s coming to age. It comes recommended for anyone who enjoys literature discussing the crossroads of religion and science in a quality sci-fi setting. If only Egan had built the climax around a concept more relative the story would be great.