Author: Greg Egan
Publisher: Gollancz • 300 pages • £18.99 (hardback), £12.99 (trade paperback)
As genres go, science fiction can be deceptive. Anyone looking at its surface features (Spaceships! Aliens! Time travel!) might not realise that beyond this simple layer, it’s actually a seething mass of lively subgenres, many of which bear little resemblance to each other.
Out of all of them, the subgenre that arguably gets closest to what science fiction is supposed to be about (asking “what if” and backing it up with rigidly scientific principles) is the world of Hard SF. This is the kind of pure science fiction that separates the men from the boys, leaving behind pulp excess for a world of speculation and inquiry.
One of Hard SF’s leading lights is Australian author Greg Egan. Crashing onto the scene in the early ‘90s with a dazzling selection of short stories, he’s built an impressive reputation through six acclaimed novels, and his latest explores a similar mix of far-future world-building and dizzying physics.
Set a million years from now, Incandescence follows two separate story strands. The first of these stars Rakesh, a bored inhabitant of a civilisation called the Amalgam. With the galaxy divided between the Amalgam and the enigmatic Aloof, virtually everything has been explored and discovered. So when Rakesh is offered the chance to enter the normally off-limits territory of the Aloof to investigate a mysterious asteroid which holds traces of DNA, he understandably leaps at the chance.
Meanwhile, in the story’s second strand, we’re also following the discoveries of Roi and Zak, two insect-like creatures who live inside the Splinter, a bizarre habitat that tumbles through an ocean of light referred to as the Incandescence. Their society is team-based and tightly controlled, but Zak has started making observations about gravity that are revealing the true nature of the Splinter – and which also suggest that they’ll soon be facing total destruction. Yikes.
As the two strands intertwine, Egan uses them to explore a number of ideas, from the classic SF question of the rights and wrongs of interference in other civilisations, to the practicalities of scientific discovery. This is science fiction on a massive scale, and with Egan being one of the genre’s top ideas men, there’s no shortage of invention or brain-spinning concepts. He’s also made the world of Roi and Zak relatable and empathetic while still being definably alien, and in most respects, Incandescence edges close to being top-notch stuff.
What stops it from getting all the way there is a common problem with a great deal of Hard SF: too much emphasis on the mechanics of world-building, and not enough on the genuine emotions within the story. Egan’s scientific rigour is second-to-none, and watching Zak and Roi discover for themselves the principles of Einsteinian physics is often fascinating. On the other hand, the lengthy sequences of mathematical calculations are likely to provide a serious headache for any reader without a half-decent knowledge of physics. It doesn’t help that the pacing of the book is quite slow, only becoming truly gripping in the final third, or that Roi’s storyline eventually becomes far more engaging and involving than the one about Rakesh.
Incandescence may be easier to admire than to enjoy, then, but these problems don’t take away the breadth of what Egan has achieved here, and for any fans of Hard SF in the mode of Gregory Benford or Greg Bear (is there a law saying that if you’re called Greg you have to write Hard SF?), this is genuinely unmissable. For the more casual reader, Egan’s short stories provide a much more accessible route into his fiction. It’s a pity that while his latest novel excels at making you think, it isn’t always as accomplished at making you feel.