Monday, January 6, 2014

Review of Dark Integers and Other Stories by Greg Egan

Though the count may not be high (five stories all told), Greg Egan’s Dark Integers and Other Stories packs a theoretical punch, quite literally.  Novellas and novelettes only, the 2008 collection is filled with the author’s trademark hard science speculation.  The selections published between 1995 and 2007, one pair of stories is set within the same universe as Incandescence, another pair within a near-future Earth setting, and the fifth on a water world.  Quality contentious, certainly those who appreciate abstract theorizing will enjoy it the most. 

The following is a brief summary of the five pieces:

“Luminous”  (1995)  - In a shocking opening scene, a man awakes to find himself shackled to a bed and a woman operating on his arm trying to extract the data cache buried in his flesh.  Containing invaluable and literally illogical formulas, he escapes to explain his story, and, once and for all, test the data lodged within.  This correlates to something along the lines of: “Let me get this straight. What you’re talking about is taking ordinary arithmetic - no weird counter-intuitive axioms, just the stuff every ten-year-old knows is true -  and proving that it’s inconsistent, in a finite number of steps?” The follow-through is more than even the man, let alone the corporation chasing him, thinks possible.  An interesting story for anyone who likes pure mathematical paradoxes and the potential implications, otherwise a bit blocky.

Riding the Crocodile (2005) – A sketch leading up to 2008’s Incandescence, this novella tells of a husband and wife who, after thousands of years alive, have decided to take on one last project before allowing themselves to die.  Learning of a galactic system that has never been penetrated despite millions of attempts, the pair leave the Amalgam and set flight on their last adventure.  But testing the hypothesis they propose puts their decision to the test in ways the reader cannot predict.  Along with Oceanic, this is the strongest story in the collection. The title?  Well, I missed something in the reading…

“Dark Integers” (2007) - Picking up events ten years after “Luminous”, this novelette details new threats from illogical math.  Bruno, Alison and Yuen think their secret has been safe, especially since the light-powered super-computer was decommissioned.  But they quickly find themselves in a new predicament.  Other researchers are driving toward similar theories and conclusions, which may lead to intergalactic war.  Not truly answering the unanswered question which appeared at the conclusion of “Luminous”, Egan remains oblique, leaving matters open at the conclusion of “Dark Integers”, perhaps for a third story.  Plot and theory forced together into a marriage that works on a limited basis (I suppose like real life), the story requires more abstract imagination for the concepts contained than is typical.

“Glory” (2007) - Another story set in the Amalgam of Incandescence and Riding the Crocodile, this story opens on a sweet mix of pseudo-science pyrotechnics, which quickly escalates to post-human proportions as an anthropologist arrives on a distant planet to do research.  Encountering local tensions, compounded by intergalactic hostilities, her job only becomes more difficult.  A rather blunted story, this is not the most subtle of Egan’s work.

Oceanic (2008) - Like Oracle, this is another Egan novella that pits science against religion.  But unlike Oracle, which took real figures from history and set their ideologies up on opposing whiteboards with little story to move matters, Oceanic places story in the foreground.  Egan’s mindset on his sleeve, the story of Martin and his growing up on the planet is the most accessible of this collection, but remains fully within the author’s moral purview.  The climax exasperate, Egan continues to make no bones about his stance on religion.  See here for a longer review of this novella.

Looking at the collection as a whole, Egan has desired touch points for each story, and he sticks to them.  Character a mere waypoint to speculation on mathematical theory and metaphysical quandaries, it confirms Egan’s reputation as one of the purest writers of hard science fiction today.  It is thus no surprise that science is spun altruistically.  The following passage from Riding the Crocodile (subtly) presents the mindset at work: “The meal they made was filling but bland. Leila resisted the urge to tweak her perceptions of it; she preferred to face the challenge of working out decent recipes, which would make a useful counterpoint to the more daunting task they'd come here to attempt.” While certainly such people exist, the woman’s actions are presented through rose tinted glasses.  After all, what percentage of humanity prefers the high road to the low road?  If Leila were the only character to display such an attitude, the shading could be forgiven.  But that all the characters behave and think in this fashion (save Oceanic) skews the stories’ realism.  A more daunting version of Arthur C. Clarke, Egan’s pro-science views come direct from character lips and story outcomes, idealism taking precedence to individual humanity.  The conclusion of Oceanic is in particular a statement in support of objectified knowledge, the implication being all will benefit.  While no word can be said against the optimism inherent to this view, a lack of empathy, or a disconnection to humanity at large, remains (i.e. those who lack the strength/willpower to take the high road and need to resort to other ways).  Considering much of Egan’s other stories have very strong humanist ties, the stories thus tend to be more idealistic, and must be approached as such.

In the end, Dark Integers and Other Stories is a good representation of Greg Egan’s longer short fiction.  Hard science extrapolation on math, physics, and astronomy, the fundamental modes of thriller, bildungsroman, and planetary adventure are used tell highly abstract stories.  In short, Dark Integers is an apt title. Oceanic is the most accessible, while “Luminous” and “Dark Integers” are the least, Riding the Crocodile and “Glory” occupying territory somewhere in the middle.  Likewise a mix of time, the publishing years range from 1995 (nearly the beginning of Egan’s writing career) to 2007, a mere six years ago at time of this review, a twelve year span, in total. 

A side note regarding the publishing state of Greg Egan’s short fiction: the rights scattered across the board, looking into purchasing a collection by the author is a semi-daunting task.  According to isfdb, Egan has six collections published as of July 2013.  Snowballed along multiple vectors, these collections contain many of the same entries.  Oracle, Oceanic, “Luminous”, “Dark Integers”, “Border Guards”, “Crystal Nights”, and on and on goes the list of stories that appear in more than one collection.  Something of a nightmare for those looking to avoid spending money on stories they already have, or have read, it’s best to do some research beforehand to know exactly which stories are in which collection and try to find that which best suits your interests.  Consider yourselves warned.

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