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Oceanic by Greg Egan

01/09/2009. Contributed by Gareth D. Jones

Buy Oceanic in the USA - or Buy Oceanic in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 375 page enlarged paperback. Price: 10.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08652-4.

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Greg Egan is well known for his high-concept stories that extrapolate the future of humanity to extremes of biology, technology and time. His ability to wield maths and physics as literary tools is unparalleled. In the collection 'Oceanic', he demonstrates both of these attributes while continuing to create interesting characters who help us to comprehend the incomprehensible. Twelve stories previously published in 'Asimov's Magazine' and 'Interzone' among others make up this sturdy volume.

The opening story is 'Lost Continent' in which a young man from a war-torn Middle-Eastern land escapes through a whirlwind-like phenomenon that take him to an alternate future. Here he finds himself locked up with hundreds of other asylum seekers in a story that satirises the concept of freedom and democracy by showing what it's really like for the bewildered immigrants who arrive in more 'enlightened' countries. The innocence and confusion of the immigrant make this a touching and effective story.

There's an unusually light feeling to 'Steve Fever', the story of a boy who feels compelled to run away from home to the city, through a torn and desolate country. All of the world's woes are to blame on the 'Stevelets', a virus-like AI whose sole purpose is to bring its creator Steve back to life. The reasons behind this are not as important as the consequences as the Stevelets use up the Earth's resources and population to pursue their quest. It's a clever and entertaining idea.

'Border Guards' spends quite some time commentating on a game of quantum soccer, a fabulously esoteric game that left me wondering what was going on. The story is set in an artificial universe where the social problems inherent with immortality bring their own psychological difficulties. The link back to our own recognisable world gives the tale a thoughtful resonance.

There are three stories set in Greg Egan's Amalgam - the far-future galaxy-spanning culture that was the setting of his recent novel 'Incandescence'. Here the numerous species of the galaxy have attained practical immortality and switch between electronic and physical existences as easily as we change clothes.

Each of the stories explores different aspects of this complex society as they follow the lives of individuals through huge time-periods and mind-blowing technology. 'Riding The Crocodile' tells the tale of a 10,000 year-old couple who want to do one last significant thing with their lives. They attempt to communicate with the Aloof, the enigmatic culture that inhabits the galactic bulge.

Of all the stories in this collection this one showcases the huge scales that Greg Egan is willing to play with in his plots. Focusing in on a single planet, 'Glory' explores a world not yet part of the Amalgam and a visitor who tries to make sense of the ancient archaeological discoveries made on the planet - mathematical formula that could have implications for the galaxy as a whole. Somehow Greg Egan manages to make maths sound beautiful and glorious, an impression shared by few, I'd wager.

I like maths, but I've decided it's best not to try to follow the explanations for fear of obtaining a large headache. The physics gets even more fabulous in 'Hot Rock', as two Amalgam explorers land on an orphan planet to investigate how it can sustain heat and life in interstellar space. Again, the timescales involved are immense and this time a whole plethora of biotechnology is involved. It's another fascinating addition to the collection.

The Hugo Award-winning title story 'Oceanic' rounds off the collection, which along with the BSFA Award finalist 'Crystal Nights', highlights the quality of story that Greg Egan is regularly producing. This is another fine collection of cerebral SF for you to get your head round.

Gareth D. Jones

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