01/10/2008. Contributed by Gareth D Jones
pub: Gollancz. 327 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08208-3).
check out website: www.orionbooks.co.uk
The ten stories in this collection were first published in the mid-nineties where I remember reading many of them in 'Interzone'. The themes are diverse but all have in common a rooting in hard science, taking concepts in use today and extrapolating them into the near future or imagining what they may lead to one day. The near-future tales are often set in times that we have since reached, yet they have not become outdated like many ideas have. Instead, they still sound as though they could be fulfilled within the next twenty years. Many of the stories have one particular technological idea at their core, but the text is also peppered with references to other developments that remove the entire society and setting away from the familiar and into the fantastic.
In 'Chaff', the setting is a genetically modified area of the Amazon basin that has been designed to hide and protect an organisation of bio-technology drug cartels along with numerous guerrillas and other random groups. A DEA agent, armed with his own symbiotes and genetic modifications, enters the jungle to track down a recent defector. This opening story sets the tone of the book with a vast array of subsidiary ideas and developments woven around the central character, evidence that Egan has written not just a gimmick-based story but thought things through to their ultimate conclusions.
The title story is named after a Chinese super-computer made of pure light. 'Luminous' is put to use to trace anomalies in mathematics that seem to contradict the very nature of the universe. The mathematical modelling and metaphysical discussions are fabulously esoteric, but made relevant by the characters that discuss them. It's a masterpiece of sfnal extrapolation and is imbued with a sense of wonder that belies its seemingly dry subject matter.
An old man considering his transformation into an android is worried at the prospect of 'Transition Dreams', random data ghosts that are impossible to predict. The Gleisner robots in the story later appear in some of Egan's other works which I hadn't realised before. In a similar way to 'Luminous', the story is full of mind-boggling technobabble that seems meaningless but is given purpose by the character's thoughts and the seemingly pointless plot suddenly gains relevance right at the end.
Egan takes a depressingly fatalistic view of life in 'Reasons To Be Cheerful' in which a young boy's brain tumour first makes him permanently happy then permanently depressed. The explanation of the exotic cure offered in later life is intriguing in itself, but the insight into man's motivations and emotions is bleak indeed. The story won't make you cheerful, but will make an impression.
The collection's final tale is 'The Planck Dive' in which Egan takes us to the far future familiar from novels like 'Permutation City' and 'Incandescence'. Here, artificial beings and software downloads live in far-flung polises, creating artificial landscapes and clones at will. The secrets of the universe may be available to those willing to dive within a black hole, an object almost as impenetrable as the discussions on maths and physics. I love this kind of thing, but I suspect that it's only for fans of hard SF.
What surprised me about this collection, being quite a fan of Greg Egan already, is the spread of themes and styles. The stories range from the cyberpunk tone of 'Mister Volition' through medical chiller 'Silver Fire' to the social commentaries in 'Mitochindrial Eve' and 'Cocoon' to the near-future detective thriller 'Our Lady Of Chernobyl'. The latter suddenly jumps a page or so from the end, as if a paragraph had been left out. Other than that, the prose was flawless and offers every SF fan something to enjoy.
Gareth D. Jones
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