Incandescence Hardcover – Jul 15 2008
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"Egan is perhaps the most exciting SF writer at work today." -- Andrew McKie THE DAILY TELEGRAPH "One of the very best progenitors of hard science fiction out there...Egan explores the very essence of what it is to be human, the very nature of what and who we are and how we relate, or don't, to one another. Expansive, engaging and thoroughly thought-provoking stuff. Science fiction at its most powerful and profound." -- Alasdair Morton SCI FI NOW "[A] curious combination of cool rationality and philosophical adventure. Egan has been working these veins since 'Dust', 'Permutation City' and 'Diaspora' and his hand has not lost its cunning nor his mind its passion." -- Russell Letson LOCUS "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. For any fans of hard SF, this is genuinely unmissable." SFX "With Incandescence Egan's imagination continues to dazzle and distil the sense of wonder that makes SF such a joy. If you like your SF real hard then you'll simply love this one: it's as solid as the genre gets." CONCATENATION "...a clever and original scientific mystery, and the evocation of a couple of very unusual and fascinating cultures. It's been too long since the last Egan novel. Hopefully the next gap won't be nearly as great." DONDAMMASSA.COM "Egan's ideas - notably people travelling the galaxy as data - are frequently fascinating." -- Dave Golder BBC FOCUS "Greg Egan has no equal in the field of hard SF novels. His themes are cosmic with galactic civilizations and plots spanning millennia. Compelling throughout, [Incandescence] contrasts some fascinating moral quandaries of knowing decadence with the mind-expanding discoveries of isolated peasants and eventually blends its narrative threads in a surprising twist." -- Tony Lee STARBURST "In his hard science fiction novels, Greg Egan isn't afraid to tackle high concepts, and as the afterword to Incandescence shows, he has drawn inspiration from the most up to date scientific thinking." DREAMWATCH "Sheer exuberance of invention. The way Egan writes it, the Amalgem feels like the only possible future, and the future looks just fine from here." -- INTERZONE Jim Steel "Audacious as ever, Egan makes you believe it is possible. A breathtaking, if sometimes knotty, thought experiment." NEW SCIENTIST --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Top Customer Reviews
Greg Egan's science writing, in both fiction and non-fiction, has been prolific, enjoyable, well-written and reliable. For some time now, he has been pioneering a science fiction that doesn't have to violate the laws of physics as we (or at least some of us) know them to travel the galaxy within the lifetime of one consciousness. And instead of demanding that we just "suspend disbelief," he takes the trouble to let us in on the physics of his universes.
Some reviewers have complained that this new genre is "dry," that it's "harder than hard" science fiction, that it fails to entertain while it educates. Like many mathematically challenged people, I get an unpleasant sensation inside my head whenever I have to make an adjustment in a recipe for zucchini bread. So I can't really account for the joy I repeatedly experienced while reading Incandescence, whenever its engaging non-humanoid aliens worked out another bit of the physics of their threatened fragment of a world. It's all done, in the book, with ordinary thinking, not mathematics per se, and I found following it a lot of fun! Actually, it may even be possible to enjoy the story-lines in this book while skimming the physics.
I can't think of a good name for this new genre; everything I've come up with is mildly off-putting (science edufiction? rock-hard science fiction?) but I'm certain it has a market among the wistful thousands of ordinary people like me.
As a die-hard fan of the author I don't quite regret buying this book, but I'd warn any new readers to aim first for Diaspora, Quarantine or Permutation City.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Egan's story is set in the galactic core, inhabited by a race known as the Aloof, because they seem almost indifferent to any attempts at communication from the Amalgam, the loose network of civilizations that inhabit the rest of the galaxy. However, they do allow thrill-seeking members of the Amalgam to enter their transportation network, digitizing themselves for transmission at the speed of light across the galactic core, instead of the long way around it.
A chunk of rock containing DNA leads a couple to commit their efforts to tracking down the mystery of a lost alien race inside the Aloof-controlled core. That's the setup, but the real fascination of this book is the weird physics and civilization of the surviving aliens, who live on a fragment of rock in the gravity well of a neutron star. By a process of deduction and scientific measurement using primitive tools the inhabitants are able to deduce their true situation in the universe and also to come to understand the perils they face.
Much of the book consists of the scientific inquiries of the aliens, rendered in great detail, in particular the way they deduce their orbital mechanics by measuring the forces at work inside their world. It reminds me of Robert L. Foward's fantastic hard SF novel Dragon's Egg, which describes a race living on the surface of a neutron star, their bodies made out of degenerate matter, and also of Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity.
Egan tries to make his stories character-driven, and although we do wind up caring what happens to his characters, he really shines at the physics. If you don't have a good working knowledge of gravitation and the forces that act on a body while in an orbit or rotating, you won't really get much out of this book. Perhaps that dooms it to a relatively small audience. But if you like physics and you like speculative fiction, and in particular like thinking about the scientific method and how we came to discover what we know about the universe, you just might love it!
Sounds pretty intriguing, doesn't it? The Aloof are a mystery. Obviously highly advanced, but unwilling to interact with humanity. Until two intrepid humans accept an invitation to travel to into Aloof territory to examine a strange rock world inhabited by sentient insect-like creatures.
Still sounds intriguing, doesn't it? As always, Egan is concerned with hard science - mathematics, physics, genetics and astronomy - and indeed the nature of scientific discovery. And therein lies the problem. Incandescence suffers from the same shortcoming as did Schild's Ladder - too much science, not enough fiction. Both the human and insectoid characters are painted far too thinly to arouse any real emotion and the dialogue serves mainly as a vehicle for explaining the science rather than giving any insight into the characters themselves. As a reader I felt a kind of intellectual detachment from the events - like I was watching but not particularly engaged. Rather like the Aloof, in fact.
Nonetheless, the science is intriguing, even for a non-scientific type like me, and the ideas are really big. So, if that's your thing, you'll probably enjoy it more than I did. For me, though, the biggest most intriguing mystery of all, the Aloof themselves, remained unsolved. Indeed, I gleaned little insight into their nature or their motives. For me they remained as aloof as ever.
I still think Egan is one of the best SF writers around, but Incandescence is not his most engaging work.
I would only recommend this book to college physics students having a hard time and looking for a painless way to have orbital mechanics explained without math.
Given Egaan's earlier, much better work, I was very disappointed. Perhaps there is a sequel in the works that will tie things together. If so, would it have hurt to put a teaser to the next part so that we don't have to wonder if Egan and his editors went over the edge. Which brings me to the title for my review. Where were the editors? A published book is not just the work of the author. Decent editing could have saved this book. Likewise critical reading in draft form by some cogent sci-fi readers or authors.
If this is part one of an unannounced series shame on Egan and the publishing house. I don't mind buying several books to have one story told (although I would prefer one, fat book to three skinny ones) I don't like be lured into thinking I'm buying a complete work only to find I have a fragment. I actually prefer to sit back and wait until the series is compete and then buy and read them at once, in sequence.
I will try to keep the plot summary brief to avoid spoilers (though I don't think a few teasers are too far off base): A member of a galaxy-spanning civilization is recruited in a roundabout way (but not as roundabout as the reader is initially led to believe) to investigate the odd (or is it?) appearance of DNA-based life in the galactic bulge. Meanwhile, a preindustrial, insect-like culture slowly has to come to grips with the nature of the world in which they live.
Just to address the major criticism a lot of people had with this novel, these two plot threads (the former on odd-numbered chapters and the latter on even-numbered ones) do come together, but not directly. The reader does need to be paying attention, and the biggest reveal of all, which made me chuckle with satisfaction, is on the very last page. Compare this to Theodore Sturgeon's _Venus Plus X_, which is laid out in the same way, but where the plot threads really don't come together (though the even chapters still contribute thematically).
I do think there was one valid criticism in these reviews, and that was with the paucity of drawings, diagrams, and graphs. It's a lot more work than it needs to be to read the even-numbered chapters, so a little help would have been nice, even if it's still plenty rewarding without them. I can kind of understand how the inclusion of diagrams would have interrupted the narrative--the two that are included, in chapters 2 and 4, are referred to explicitly in the dialogue, but I think further diagrams could be safely included for the benefit of the reader alone. After all, illustrations in fiction don't have to be mentioned in a story ("Hey, look at this picture of us!"); why should diagrams be any different? General relativity and orbital mechanics are not easy concepts, and a picture is definitely worth a thousand words. Yes, Egan provides some great resources on his website, but including an abridged version of this content in the pages of the novel itself would have been a great service to the average reader.
Also, I WOULD have had two other criticisms. I did not find it plausible for the people of the Splinter (in even chapters) to have advanced as quickly as they did, but Egan dealt with this nicely. I also was greatly bothered by the DNA panspermia, but Egan threw me a bone in the afterword ("I wouldn't argue with anyone who considers it to be highly unlikely"), so I will let that one slide too (as after all, it's probably not completely impossible, and something like the Splinter--but with microbes--is a plausible enough mechanism).
Overall, this is a great book for Egan fans, as well as for fans of other hard SF such as Hal Clement, and for aficionados of science and the scientific method in general. I can only dock a half star at most for the diagram thing, and I'll then round up to five anyway. I would have to say that I liked _Diaspora_ more for its breathtaking scale, but _Incandescence_ was still WELL worth buying in hardcover.
But beyond these logistics, the story deals with some powerful ideas. As I'm sure others have pointed out here, Egan is top-of-the-heap when it comes to ideas. And ideas are the heart of good science fiction. Here are some questions to ponder:
-How much of our personality and cultural traits are tied to our biology? If we move beyond bodies, what cultural prejudices and inclinations will remain? How does this affect the development of our civilization?
-If we are immortal, what do we do with our time when all parts of the galaxy have been explored, scanned, and cataloged? The nearest galaxy is so distant that we may have thoroughly traversed our own before being able to explore it. How do we adapt to boredom? Is curiosity even a desirable trait when nothing remains to satisfy it?
-True aliens have different values and priorities than we do.
I have thought about this story very often since finishing it because of ideas like this. If you are intrigued, the book may be worth your time and effort. I loved it.