Incandescence by Greg Egan
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
06 June 2008
Egan’s new book is about finding stuff out, and that is both its appeal and the ground of its weakness. Finding stuff out, of course, is the bedrock of Science, and has a long and, often, splendid history in the Fiction of Science: epistemological quests, conceptual breakthroughs, ‘learning the world’. But finding stuff out is not enough in itself to sustain a 300 page fictional narrative. The imperative of fiction is, in one sense, not finding stuff out—which is to say, holding off the revelation, deferring the reader’s comprehension, so as to hold her interest and keep her reading. The TV serial Lost is fiction, and whilst its endless deferments of explanation are perhaps annoying they are nevertheless, on a narrative level, highly addictive. Incandescence is a sort of anti-Lost: everything is explained all the time all the way through. It is, in other words, a sort of Found, and as fiction it suffers accordingly.
This is what we find: a society set a million years into the future whose basic circumstances are explained straight away: a galaxy saturated with life, divided between on the one hand the spiral arms, home to the diverse high-tech but recognizable lifeforms to which Egan gives the rather dental name ‘the Amalgam’; and on the other the inaccessible, mysterious, seemingly indifferent inhabitants of the galactic core known as the Aloof. The story concentrates on two citizens of the amalgam, Rakesh, whom we are told straight away is descended distantly from actual fleshly DNA beings, and Parantham, whose ancestors were embodied by an AI. They accept a challenge indirectly laid down by the beings of the Aloof: a meteor that has been circling the core for fifty million years carries the remnants of radiation scarred DNA. Parantham and Rakesh’s mission, should they choose to accept it (and they do) is to find out where the meteor originated, and to decipher its significance. To do this they must travel into the realm of the Aloof. There’s a whiff of glamour about this, since all previous incursions from the Amalgam, though benign, have been equally benignly but firmly rebuffed; and so their mission is also about uncovering something of the mystery of the core. We’re not immediately told the results of their enquiries, because those enquiries constitute the novel; but nor are we told why their enquiries matter, because the novel’s real interest is the process of enquiry itself. Which is to say, Science.
Then we find a second narrative, braided in alternate chapters with the first. It concerns lifeforms that are physiologically insectoid, though psychologically rather human, inhabiting the tunnels of a worldlet called Splinter. Roi starts the novel as part of a work team tending the vegetation upon which their society depends (we’re immediately filled-in on the physical and social set-up of the worldlet and its hexapodic inhabitants). Meeting an elderly male called Zak, Roi becomes interested in aiding his scientific experiments. Together, and despite the fact they live in a wholly pre-Industrial society ignorant of the most basic physics, where children learn addition and subtraction but not multiplication, where time is calculated only in heartbeats, and where calculations have to be written on plant leaves, they discover Newtonian physics, algebra, a quasi-Einsteinian understanding of spacetime as curved, and various other things; which in turn lead them realize that the strange physics of their world bespeaks imminent tidal-gravitational disaster. For three quarters of the novel I boggled more than a little at the improbable genius of these insects. The novel’s ending (I eschew spoilers) explains the extreme rapidity of their Age of Enlightenment, although I retained a portion of bogglement—it didn’t seem to me to add up. In fact the Splinter-bugs come across as ciphers through which Egan rehearses the process by which scientists undertake experiment after experiment in order to move closer to the truth. At the weightless center of the Splinter, Roi and Zak fire pebbles using a spring-loaded tube and watch them orbit around the Null Line, whilst having conversations like this:
Roi said: ‘its orbit was smaller than ours, so it was racing ahead of us?’
‘And the way it moved away from the Null Line and then back again, that’s because the orbit wasn’t a perfect circle?’
‘Right,’ said Zak. ‘We remain a constant distance from the Hub, but there are orbits like this that draw closer to the Hub and then move away again.’
Roi contemplated this. ‘What if we could put a stone into an orbit that wasn’t a perfect circle, but was still the same size as ours overall? With the same period?’
... ‘That could be very useful,’ [Zak] said eventually. ‘We ought to see it execute a fixed, cyclic motion instead of running away across the chamber.’ (p. 89)
Yes, their exchanges really are as dry and unengaging as that, pretty much all the way through. Parantham and Rakesh are not much better. (“Before Rakesh could invoke any kind of high-powered statistical analysis, Parantham said ‘that can’t be right.’ The chemistry-based ranking was not at all what might have been expected ... the chemical profile of the region’s stars placed the rock’s origins in a completely different direction than that from which it seemed to have come. ‘It must have undergone a sharp course change,’ Rakesh suggested, ‘maybe even passing through another planetary system on its way.’ ‘Either that, or its chemistry’s distorted for some reason,’ Parantham said” (p. 75). And so on.)
It is not that the book wholly lacks interest. I was mildly intrigued by the DNA riddled meteor, not so much for its own sake but because it seemed to promise insights into the Aloof—insights which were not, ultimately, forthcoming. I was less intrigued by Zak and Roi’s interminable toing and froing with stones and springs inside the Splinter, to which adheres the odour of fourth-form school physics labs. On the other hand there are some witty touches too. I like the idea that space travel in the distant future will involve selecting a star on a map, whereupon a menu pops up asking ‘are you sure you really want to travel to this star?’ More, as the author of two novels called Stone and Splinter I experienced a tingle reading the following sentence: “Imagine a stone that’s moving in a straight line, as seen from outside the Splinter” (p. 83). I’ve already started planning novels called Imagine, A Straight Line and Outside.
Eventually, by the book’s end, the stuff we have cumulatively found out about Splinter and the DNA-meteor adds up a bunch of stuff. And when the two narratives come together, as we know they must, the story is over, apart from a rather leaden Prime Directive dilemma. That’s it, there is no more. I was left thinking that the worldbuilding specifics of the Splinter are sort of cool, although only sort of, and that the novel as a whole feels like a neat-oh short-story idea that has been stretched and stretched beyond the capacity of its elastic to snap-back.
Which is to say Incandescence is not Egan’s best novel. Oddly for an author of his stature, there are various evidences of a clumsiness of execution—clumsiness on the level of the fiction, I mean; for the science, once we get past throwing pebbles in zero-g, is as gosh-wow as we might expect. Prose style has never been Egan’s forte, and to some extent that’s fair enough, since his fans will not be buying this novel for Updikean excursi capturing the vivid intensities of perception. That said, it’s a shame that Egan seems innocent of the proper use of the subjunctive mood (“if this world was a bacterial graveyard ...” p. 102) or the inelegance of ending sentences with prepositions (“...the abundance that she was used to” p. 40). More, the framing of the tale throws up awkwardnesses. On the one hand Egan flourishes various super-high-tech features of his future life. On the other characters from a million years in the future send down avatars that are called, by narrator and characters both, “jelly babies” (p. 105). Are we to suppose that jelly babies of all things have survived so lengthy a span of time? Will our descendents in a million years really still be pushing grains of rice around a plate with a fork?
Then again, can one talk of “a whirlwind tour of history” (p. 80) or say of a character that he is “armed with the map of weights” (p. 82) in a world like Splinter that has neither whirlwinds nor armies? Of course, one way of addressing this would be to make the tacit assumption that Egan has translated not just words but concepts into something accessible to 21st-century Anglophone readers. Which is fair enough, although it makes me wonder why directions on Splinter are rendered not “north,” “south,” “west” and “east,” but “Shomal,” “Junub,” “Garm” and “Sard,” a strategy that leads to much stylistic indigestibility, for instance: “’If I’m garm of the Null line,’ Roi mused, ‘but not shomal or junub, the Splinter will still carry me in a circle’” (p. 63). That’s likely to make my list of 2008 top-ten flat ugliest sentences. And when, later, one of Egan’s characters declares ‘we can understand the direction “three spans garm for every one span rarb”’ (p. 114), it starts to look like he’s just taking the piss.
Which brings me to the subject of infodumping. Here’s one dump from the very first time we meet Roi, at the end of her work shift:
A group of wretched males clung to the rock, begging to be relieved of their ripeness. Roi approached to inspect their offerings. Each male had separated the two hard plates that met along the side of his body, to expose a long, soft cavity where five or six swollen globes sat dangling from heavy cords ... she used her mating claw to reach into the males’ bodies, snip the globes free and deposit them inside her. ... The ripe seed packets secreted a substance that the males found extremely unpleasant, and whilst unplucked globes did shrivel up and die eventually, waiting for that to happen could be an ordeal. There were tools available for severing and discarding them, but that method was notoriously prone to spilling an agonizing dose of irritant. Something about a female’s mating claw ... sealed the broken cord far more effectively than any tool. (p. 14)
You’ll remember a similar scene from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl:
Prince Amerigo removed his clothes. His male generative organ, known technically as a “penis” (although it had a wide range of other, slang and informal names) was no long flaccid and had become stiff, acquiring the consistency of wood or bone. It had also become slightly larger. The Prince achieved this transformation by subconsciously—autonomously—diverting a small proportion of his blood flow into the organ, where a spongy tissue became engorged with the additional fluid. This bodily alteration in the Prince’s organ was accompanied by an emotional and psychological desire, that he experienced as a sense of urgency, to insert the “penis” into Charlotte’s vaginal cavity, using friction to stimulate the release of spermatic fluid. This urgency would eventually dissipate if the penis were not inserted, but the Prince experienced it in the moment as a form of pain, not physical but not the less aggravating for being psychological, and his preference was for full mating with Charlotte.
Of course not. Of course, we might say, James doesn’t need to write that, because we all know what is involved in the human sex act, while Egan does need to introduce his dumpy little chunk of info because we don’t know what is involved in his insectoid creatures’ mating. Of course we don’t know: Egan has just made the species up. But I don’t think this is actually what is at issue here. (Imagine The Golden Bowl being read by an inexperienced teenager vague on the precise details of the sex act, or by somebody unaware of the precise mechanism by which a penis becomes erect: would spelling these details out enhance their reading experience? Of course not.) Egan’s paragraph is in part a way of marking the difference between human-ness and alien-ness. But it is more than that. It is a desire to communicate a large quantity of information in as efficient a manner as possible. There’s nothing more efficient than an infodump. What is any scientific paper if not a dump of info? But efficiency is an inadequate aesthetic, particularly for the novel. The appendices to The Lord of the Rings convey much more data in a much more efficient manner than The Lord of the Rings does itself. That does not mean that they are to be preferred as a reading experience. There are many better fictive methods for marking estrangement from the ordinary than this.
Naturally, a scientist does not desire to toy with her audience, or play peek-a-boo with her data; she wants to uncover things, not to cover them over with artful narrative suspensefulness. Nor do scientists lay out data so that we can intuit its significance (as it might be: “the door dilated”): the scientific model is that they spell this significance out clearly and fully. That is what this particular scientist (Gregory Egan BSc) does in this novel. He does it all the way through. It is deadening.
Science is the enemy of mystery. Fiction, however, requires a degree of negative capability immiscible with the scientific method. The best SF authors—and that includes Egan himself, in Diaspora, or Schild’s Ladder—find a way of holding these two elements in an effective emulsion. Incandescence doesn’t emulsify in that aesthetically satisfying manner; lumps of fact-based and extrapolative ideation float in a weak fluid of narrativised character. I find the result to be not so good.