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Greg Egan

I don't really have much to say about Greg, but rest assured I'll find something. And I will nick a scan of Diaspora's cover off Amazon soon, as well.





Click here to read the book's blurb

Up until reading Diaspora, I'd neatly categorised Greg Egan into 'Genetic engineering' and 'Post-cyberpunk metacomputation' (my phrase; do you like it?). To some extent, Diaspora falls into both categories - Egan can't be failed for expounding on new novel forms of life or the possibilities of simulating systems, and in this novel he combines the two, with new novel forms of life being simulated on other new novel forms of life.

To this, he adds a healthy dose of hard-physics-SF.

It seems fashionable these days for hard-SF authors to think up ever more grand galaxy, universe and metaverse spanning sagas. At first I read Asimov and Clarke - travelling between planets, let alone stars was good enough for me. I received a sharp shock after reading Baxter's Xeelee Universe series, where I was introduced to the complexities of four dimensional hyperspheres and hypercubes, time travel and inter-universe travel. Egan's Permutation City sent my head spinning with its self-assembling simulations lying upon self-assembling simulations.

But Diaspora... well, Diaspora attempts to out-do them all. It starts off small (that's small in a relative sense) with a description of life in a Polis - basically, a computer running simulations of human beings at extremely fast speeds. For those of you who are going to write off these simulations as not really being sentient, think about it - a sufficiently detailed simulation is not actually simulating the human being - it actually is a copy of the human being.

In this not-too-distant future (only a thousand years from now, would you credit it) there exist two other human 'forms' of life - Gleisner robots, which are essentially immortal androids simulating human beings, and Fleshers.

The Gleisner robots are different from the Polis-dwellers in two important ways. Firstly, they have to interact with the physical world - there's no flying about in cyberspace for them. Secondly, they run at 'real time' - in other words, they live at the same speed as normal humans, or 'Fleshers'. Polis-dwellers, on the other hand, live subjectively thousands of times faster than 'Fleshers'. So one second for a Flesher would be about over a thousand seconds for a Polis-dweller.

Got that?

Because that's the easy bit.

Early in the novel, Gleisner researchers discover that two binary neutron stars, that weren't due to collide for, well, a long time, are about to collide in four days. So, in four days time, the solar system would be hit by a gamma-ray burster. This wouldn't affect the Polis dwellers, since their computers that run them are buried far underground, but it'd pretty much kill off all the Fleshers, due to the intense radiation. The Gleisners, being robots, would be able to rough it out.

So the Polis dwellers go and warn the Fleshers.

To avoid summarising the whole story, the Gleisners decide to take jaunt off to the source of the gamma-ray bursters to found out what's going on since they blew up so early, and check out some of the closer stars with planets. Not to be left out, the Polis dwellers go and clone their programs and send off essentially computers with sensors and manufacturing systems to loads of stars as well. They find all sorts of weird and wonderful life forms, and it wouldn't be a true Greg Egan book if they didn't find some kind of life form that was a 'simulation' - which they do.

Eventually, they come across a 'strange' planet (go and read the book yourself!), and find a way to travel to other universes. From there on, with talk of 5 physical dimensions, the whole book is reduced to incomprehensible physics and universe hopping, and I basically lost the plot.

Well, no, I didn't, but I thought it got a little boring after that. That's not to say the Polis dwellers don't have any adventures - of course they do. But the latter part of the book didn't do much for me. I don't know what all this fuss of universe hopping is about - Stephen Baxter used in in Time, and it didn't do anything for me there, either. In my unprofessional and ignorant opinion, universe hopping should be only used sparingly, not as some sort of plot device (Baxter used it to great effect in his Xeelee Universe series)

So, that's the book. But is it any good? you ask.

In a manner of speaking, I suppose. If you like Greg Egan books, the more abstract novels that deal with ideas and physics, yes, you'll like this. If you want good characterisation, people you can identify with and a plot with a strong sense of direction, you will not like this at all. The plot goes all over the shop, and it's anticlimatic in places.

The start of the book itself is a little strange, and I wasn't sure whether it was a good idea for Greg to begin with such an abstract set of ideas - it took a while for me to get my head around exactly what was going on. After the first chapter though, the book gets into a good stride.

The problem, though, is that Greg has split Diaspora into several 'acts', each involving slightly different people. It's a good way of encompassing a large timeline and showing all the points of view, but it means that you never really identify with any of the characters - and that's hard enough when you're dealing with people who are bits of software code.

All in all, Diaspora was a good effort to show the reader a vast epic involving incredible new paradigms of life (simulations, simulations of simulations ad infinitum), but it just wasn't quite good enough.

Greg Egan has written some other excellent stuff though - Luminous, his collection of short stories, is brilliant, and Permutation City isn't too bad either.

(BTW: It's pronounced 'Di-aspora', not 'Diyah-spora')



This has to be my favourite Greg Egan novel so far, which doesn't really say that much seeing as it's only really a collection of short stories.

Chaff, the first short story, is a great start for the collection. Reminding me of a fairly average story called the 'Deus Machine', our protagonist descends into the horribly genetically engineered jungle of Colombia to assassinate someone. The ideas of how the jungle is controlled by rogue biotech scientists, and its extremely cool adaptive self-defence mechanisms are pretty damn good.

Mitochondrial Eve adheres to the usual formula of some apathetic scientist making a discovery that manages to destroy the foundations of some wild, crazy yet ubiquitous and popular religion. Egan throws in a pinch of physics, a bit of evolutionary biology and you've got a fairly solid short story, but nothing special.

The story of the book's title, Luminous, is unsurprisingly the best. Describing a problem where the laws of mathematics might actually be self-contradictory (by the way they formed originally in the universe), Egan manages to weave a plot of suspense and action in as well, as various nefarious agencies try to take control of the (idea? concept? meme?) for themselves, to change the rules of mathematics for themselves. It's just about plausible, in that far-out 'Egan way' that only Egan can manage, but it's a good story.

Probably the most uninteresting of the lot, Mr Volition didn't grab me at all. It moved very slowly, and Egan didn't manage to present his concepts particularly clearly. It basically involves a piece of technology causing someone to question which part of his brain determines who he really is. Boring.

Cocoon is good stuff. One of the longer stories in the collection, it comes close to the standard of Luminous. It's a typical detective story, with an interesting idea of a biotech company developing a bolster to the barrier between foetus and mother, preventing nasty chemicals getting to the baby. Predictably, there's a twist in the tale, and the 'cocoon' of the story inevitably holds some significance to the protagonist. In fact, the lengthy description of the protagonist's situation (he's gay) is almost screaming out 'Here is an important plot point - don't forget me!'.

Still, it's good reading.

Transition Dreams folds quite well into the whole Diaspora/ Permutation City universe, with its talk of downloading personlities and Gleisner Robots. Fairly short, it's a good taster of Egan's obsession into the realms of simulations being so accurate that they are the real thing. Not bad, but not amazing.

Silver Fire is another good story, again, quite long. Involving someone on the track of a deadly new virus, it also delves into the social problems of the time it describes. I quite enjoyed this, and found his insight into the fact that 'kids these days' are turning away from religion, yes, but they're into something far more frightening - spirituality.

Perhaps the least scientific of the lot, maybe predictably I didn't enjoy Reasons to be Cheerful that much at all. Essentially, during the course of an operation, a boy is stripped of his ability to feel happiness. He gets it back, eventually (in a way, of course) and the story talks about how he deals with it. I think Egan was trying to make a point with this story, saying 'I can write other stuff apart from science fiction, you know', but I found that the story was spun out a little too long, and dragged quite badly in places. Better luck next time, eh?

Our Lady of Chernobyl? Meh. Quite unmemorable, this story lacked a strong sense of direction. I wasn't entirely sure what was exactly going on, and I got a little confused in parts. This might have been due to the fact that I read the story a little too quickly, but still, I can't remember enjoying it too much.

I'd already read The Planck Dive off the internet before I bought this book, and I found it mildly engaging. It involved a little too much physics for my taste, although I suppose you probably like that sort of thing if you want to read Egan in the first place. To his credit, Egan does introduce a new element into the mixture with the appearance of positively backward-thinking, luddite and condescending characters barging their way in. Not bad.

All in all, Luminous is a collection of stories that are mildly dull at worst, and very enjoyable at best. If you average them out, you come out with a slightly above-average novel, but that's just it - it's only above average. There are better books I can think of buying. However, if you like Egan's style of writing (hard SF, lots of science, lots of biotech) then you'll like this collection. It's a good introduction to Egan, at least, showing off all the various types of SF he's attempted so far.

Originally, I'd given this book four gold stars. I'm not entirely sure why I did this, so I downgraded it to just four stars. At the moment, I'm thinking that even that might be a bit generous - sure, I enjoyed it at the time, but I generally enjoy reading any SF book at the time, as long as it's not terrible. I could give it a paltry three stars (good), but in reflection I think that would be a little unfair considering the quality of the better stories in the collection.


There isn't a proper blurb for this book, since it's a collection of short stories.



To be completed

Permutation City:

Click here to read the book's blurb