Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review of The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan

I once taught a college course on Business Ethics (not exactly an oxymoron). Most of the course modules were rooted in basic philosophical principles, one of which being Bentham's utilitarianism. Inevitably I busted out the classic scenario: do you kill one little girl to save hundreds, or let the hundreds die. (Believe it or not, yes, this gets a few minds turning.) Rendered semi-relevant to contemporary concerns regarding immigration and reparations for government crimes commited centuries earlier, Greg Egan's The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred (2016, Subterranean) is a novella exploring a similar ethical/utilitarian quandary, but thankfully in a more interesting scenario.

Life and commerce are up and running in the solar system, and two asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, have agreements in place to supply each other needed amenities. On Vesta, the initial arrangement that got life and technology kickstarted is beginning to crumble, however. Rebelling against the intellectual property rights held by one of the aristocratic families, the group in power has begun pushing for elimination of said rights. Whether it wants to be or not, Ceres is impacted by the upheaval. Asylum seekers and immigrants have begun strapping themselves to pieces of ice and other objects to cross the dangeroius void of space to the neighboring asteroid. Politics coming to a head, the people on Ceres are eventually faced with a tough decision.

While I originally thought the title The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred might refer to the Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule) given the proportion, it eventually became clear that Egan was presenting his own little girl vs. hundreds scenario. To his credit, however, Egan complexifies his with social issues, issues that ring pertinent, even as style and characterization remain quite straight-forward. From perceived victimhood to terrorism, immigration to disagreement regarding refugees, the The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred fleshes out the quandary not in understandable fashion, even if more could have been done to give the human content verisimilitude.

In the end, The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred is not a story rendered in complex style or possessing sophisticated characterization, and given the end result, some might even think it a more staged production than normally appears in fiction. But the novella does tackle some of, if not the most relevant issues facing the Western world today, particularly the situation between the Middle East and Europe. The final line is a touch maudlin, but given the harrowing events the characters had recently passed through, the sentiment is understandable, even promotable. Given that Egan has been quoted as believing its sometimes necessary for readers to have pen and paper to do their own calculations when reading his fiction (I paraphrase), the accessibility of the novella is refreshing. Thus, readers put off by the heavy science-crafting of the Orthogonal trilogy will find The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred a return to Egan's early days of more transparent fiction, and likely enjoyable for it.

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