Friday, April 18, 2014

Review of Greg Egan by Karen Burnham

It’s very typical that university programs are divided between science and the humanities.  Seemingly disparate areas of study, the approach, methodology, often even the personalities of the students are different.  In our day and age, however, the applications of science have been integrated with nearly every facet of life and the pursuit of science permeates our cultural and social behavior.  The idea has become the overriding paradigm of Western existence and is infiltrating developing areas apace.  So intricately interwoven, in fact, eliminating science would drastically change the direction our lives are moving.  Hard science fiction the strongest artistic link binding these two traditionally insular areas together, Karen Burnham’s author study, called simply Greg Egan (2014, University of Illinois Press), attempts to make a case for the author being the best literary example of the association: science as humanism.

Burnham approaches Egan with the methodology of a standard author study.  Her own doctoral work in science utilized, evident are the knowledge and ability to contextualize and present the subject matter, attention to detail and history, and the importance of working from a structure that shapes the whole—a predication, as it were.  The body of the text therefore parses Egan’s fiction into four distinct areas: ethics (as exhibited in character, gender, lgbt aspects, transhumanism, uneven distribution of wealth, money and politics in scientific research, etc.), identity (including neurochemical consciousness and consciousness as information), “hard core math and physics” (including subjective cosmology, figuring out the rules of physics, how science works in the fictional societies and cultures, and alternate physics and cosmologies), and the relationship between the worldview presented in Egan’s fiction and contemporary society (including religion, post-modernism, and science as giving purpose and meaning). 

Burnham having read (seemingly) everything published by Egan in preparation, from the novels to the short stories, the foundation of the study is an informed knowledge of the author’s backlog.  Fully integrated into the assumptions and propositions, it’s evident Burnham has delved deep into the author’s oeuvre, not only to comprehend what can be difficult narratives, but also to flesh out the underlying implications and concepts that connect the individual works.  Reading her interpretations of Egan’s fiction is thus both a confirming and eye-opening experience for any reader with a portion of Egan’s fiction under their belt.  Rounding out the analysis, and in turn feeding back through the main narrative, is a twenty-three page interview between Burnham and Egan at the end of the book.  The questions intelligent and insightful, Egan responds in highly candid and equally intelligent fashion about a wide variety of subjects, from the impetus behind some of his stories to comments on science, science fiction, genre, religion, and humanitarian work—a wide variety of pertinent subjects.  For the person wanting a better view of who Egan is as a person, the value of the book may exist in the interview alone.

Thus, along with the literary merits of the study, Greg Egan possesses value from a fan perspective.   Egan’s fiction becoming less and less accessible and more and more theoretical as the years pass, it can be a challenge to comprehend the alternate physics or cosmology.  (The writer himself admonishes the reader that pen and paper may be necessary for understanding the constructs underpinning some of his stories.) To help in this endeavor, Egan has created a website with visual explanations of the science/logic behind his works.  (How many other hard sf authors diagram their conceptual models, create java applets, and consider the animation of a particular plot device a spoiler?)  But for those looking to go even deeper, Burnham has painstakingly examined the novels from the above-mentioned viewpoints, and in turn done the leg work for people looking for clearer explanations.  Incandescence and the Orthogoinal series—notoriously dense, for example, are laid bare.  Not performed in any systematic fashion (first novel X, now Y…), readers will enjoy how the individual analyses are tied into and allowed to trickle through Egan’s oeuvre as a whole.

For as much as Burnham’s study and inherent arguments appear noteworthy, however, there are some gaps which can’t be overlooked.  From strictly a meta point of view, there is some inconsistency.  Where the third chapter “Identity and Consciousness” utilizes the work of recognized scientists and scholars to positive effect, the opening chapter, “Ethical Standards” contains little research into ethics scholarship.  Foucault or Barthes, Socrates, Kant, Mill, et al, none receive mention.  While Burnham admirably presents her points using Egan’s oeuvre as reference, the chapter would have been bolstered with scholarship from the area of ethics at large.  The last chapter, “Science and Society”, also would have benefited from greater research into the humanities—the vast subjects of religion, post-modernism, and science in culture seeming to require at least a dabbling.  And considering the main premise is science as a humanity, it would have been good to see reference to works which examine the ways science informs modern society.  Certainly no shortage of culture scholars these days, self-referential analysis only moves the discussion so far.

In the first chapter, Burnham addresses a common criticism of Egan: his less-than-mimetic characters, writing “there is a sense the characters are being modeled instead of inhabited or animated.” (38), and thereafter creates an analog between the barebones formulas of mathematics and Egan’s style.  What follows in the rebuttal could have been an analysis of those characters which best represent real humans, or an argument tied to a form of more widely accepted evidence.  As it stands, Burnham resorts to popular opinion as justification for the thin characterization, adding that it universalizes appeal.  If popular vote were the be-all end-all to subjective statements, well… it is not the strongest defense.

There is also an element of recursive digression to the study; Burnham loses focus occasionally.  The “Alternate Cosmologies” section of “Scientific Analysis” seems more an analysis of Ted Chiang’s work than Egan’s (i.e. Chiang is most often the subject rather than object).  Scattered throughout the text are likewise more than a few unrelated references to other works of sci-fi.  Dan Simmons, at one point, is mentioned as having utilized Hans Moravecs ideas in his Ilium/Olympos duology.  But the reference serves no purpose to the point at hand, merely a passing reminder.  And there are numerous other examples of such figurative ‘high fives’ to sci-fi at large.  Burnham calls the Hugo the “premier award of the science fiction field”.  Considering Harry Potter has won, this is a dubious statement at best.  And lastly, it would have been nice to have a short, maybe one or two page summary, at the end of the main text to draw all the strings together in a nice, concise conclusion.  But I will cease my nitpicking here.  Burnham, a reader and scientist truly engaged with the field, has put an effort into Egan’s fiction that benefits not only the genre as a whole, but all the humanities and sciences.  It is as good a starting point as any for the deserved legitimization of the author’s work.

In the end, Greg Egan is a literary study that, while occasionally lacking critical rigor and focus, exposits Egan’s oeuvre from a variety of viewpoints that coalesce into a single, coherent worldview.  Egan’s humanitarian work in Iran and Australia a testament, Burnham details the manner in which his fiction exemplifies the current socio-scientific paradigm and the ethics and ethical discussion which follow on.  More than any other contemporary science fiction writer, [Egan] has set himself a project of raising science’s profile through art—to convince people that science is as important and critical to the human condition as romance or religion” she writes.  Egan’s approach may at times be extreme, but considering the degree to which science is applied in society, not to mention science is currently the main motivator of culture, Burnham’s study becomes all the more relevant.

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