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Incandescence, UK cover

Incandescence, US cover

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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.



Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.
17 comments on “Incandescence by Greg Egan”

An excellent and informative review, and a good conclusion to Egan Week. Except for one small flaw:
...the inelegance of ending sentences with prepositions (“...the abundance that she was used to” p. 40).
Leave aside the fact that the prohibition on sentence-final prepositions has never been a legitimate rule of English composition. Disregard also the fact that "to" is not technically a preposition in this sentence. Instead, just consider the absurdity of calling the alternative "the abundance to which she was used" more elegant than what Egan actually wrote.

Thank you JS for the kind words. On ending sentences with prepositions, or not: I agree with you (and nor did I, I think, suggest otherwise in the review) that there is no 'law' or 'rule' in English language prohibiting ending sentences with prepositions. Do so, if you like. Me, I don't like: it strikes my ear as ugly. But it's a question of taste, not of rectitude; you're free to disagree.
You're doubtless aware of Winston Churchill's famous remark on the subject. It's quoted by Gowers in Plain Words: "It is said that Mr. Winston Churchill once made this marginal comment against a sentence that clumsily avoided a prepositional ending: This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." But here's the thing: though intended satirically, that sentence -- This is the sort of English up with which I will not put -- seems to me just beautiful. A much more elegant way of expressing yourself than saying 'This is the sort of English I won't put up with.'

Leroy

I hardly recognize the book I just read in this review. I don't think the reviewer really understood a number of key aspects of the story, particularly the ending which I, too, would not dream of spoiling for anyone.
I loved the structure and felt the whole book was a journey of "finding stuff out" and being constantly uncertain about the relationship between the two plot threads until the last few pages.

The ending of Incandescence seems very tricky to me. I suspect that if someone reads it and just takes it at face value that the ending just binds the two threads of the story directly together... that reader is missing something.
Also, with regard to the mathematical derivations that occur over the course of the Splinter narrative, there's a little more to it. More interesting than the fact that these people derive the laws of physics very quickly, is the fact that they do it from first principles and direct geometric observations, which is very different from how things were discovered for us. I would think that the contrast between the two methods of discovery is a large part of the interest of this section (and since there's no recounting of the history of Newton/Einstein/et al in the book, you just kind of have to know that stuff in order to see the contrast).

Pantufla Milagrosa

So, what is the explanation of the ending? I keep reading there's something extra that smart readers are supposed to figure out. I found the book very un-gripping most of the time and I barely finished it... I don't anticipate thinking a lot more about it but I'd be curious to know.

Philcha

It's riff on Robert Forward's "Dragon's Egg". Egan's prose is better but for me Forward's version of the scenario works better. Since Egan puts the Arkdwellers in a resource-poor environment, they offer less scope for adventure and too much for Egan's tendency to give physics lectures. Readers who find these trying can skim over them, or try "Dragon's Egg" and possibly John Brunner's "The Crucible Of Time" and you'll appreciate the Arkdwellers, who are the real story.

Sorry, Mr Roberts, but I remained fascinated from beginning to end, as I generally do with Greg Egan's work. I realise that hard SF isn't everyone's cuppa, but it's definitely mine, and I can't fault his writing either.

Nix

I must say that you got one thing spot-on: those damned, blasted silly names for directions. I wished repeatedly that I could just search-and-replace 'X+, X-, Y+, Y-, Z+, Z-' so I could just remember which were inverses.
High-flying literary SF with lots of made-up words is great if done well (e.g. Cordwainer Smith's _Scanners Live in Vain_); explicatory physics-lecture SF is also fun in a different way. But if you *mix the two up* so that people trying to make head or tail of your physics lectures can't figure out what they're talking about because all the names for your directions are gibberish, well, that's a mistake, is all, and one that nearly ruined the whole book for me.
I can't believe that I was the only one.

Liviu

Saw the blog entry of Mr. Egan about the "hatchet job" above, and while I read this review when it was originally published and disagreed with it but did not comment, I thought about adding my opinion
Incandescence is not a "literary" novel but a pure genre novel, a hard-sf one in this case, and it should judged on those criteria, ie accuracy of science, resonability of predictions, clarity of explanations, enough plot to keep it interesting...
On all these counts Incandescence succeeds magnificently especially if you are willing to use pencil and paper to follow it. I agree it's not everyone's cup of tea, but we do not need a poor review to tell us that, it's not as it's Greg Egan first book...
A review as above that does not tell us about how Incandescence compares as a hard-sf novel, how it sits in Egan's larger body of work and so on is worthless by and large.

My disagreement with this review grew too long for a comment, so I've posted it on my website instead.
In summary, although Roberts is right when he says that Incandescence has weak characterization, dry dialogue, and a lot of infodumping, I think these criticisms fail to engage with what the novel is trying to do, which is to present a dramatic description of the general theory of relativity.

That's a very interesting blog piece, Gareth.

Lake

An entertaining review, if not the write-up the book deserves. Egan's own suggestion on his website that you were writing in bad faith seems a bit petulant; you could hardly have flagged your real objection to his book - its scienciness - more clearly. All the same, it's a philistine response to a Greg Egan novel. In fact it's worse, in its way, than a review of Ulysses which objected to all the shop-talk about Irish politics or one of The Recognitions which said it had too much guff about art history and the early Church, which no normal reader could be expected to care about. Science matters more than these other subjects; it holds more intrinsic interest and more promise for humanity, and there's something admirable about Egan's presumption that he's talking to initiates about it. After all, a civilised person really *should* know about it.
None of this keeps your review from being very funny, however. Poor old Egan.

Lake, I agree with you about the importance of Science. And if Joyce had subordinated everything else in Ulysses to eg shoptalk about Irish Politics then the book merit a swingeing review. But Joyce didn't do that. The sytle -- styles -- of Ulysses are some of the greatest wonders of C20th prose, the characters varied and extraordinary and compelling, formally it's brilliant. Too much SF is excused by fans because, though written poorly, characterised poorly and formally unadventurous, it contains some cool ideas. Nothing wrong with cool ideas; but fans should hold their writers to higher aesthetic standards too.
Not sure about 'poor old Egan', though. He's a major figure of contemporary SF, and will still be a major figure when thes review, and reviewer, are forgotten.

Typos! Sorry about those.
'...then the book would merit a swingeing review...'
'The style -- styles -- ...'
'... when this review, and reviewer ...'

Pavel

I just finished the book. And it was a fast read. After a while I had to skimp all the bugs chapters, and Rakesh after all is such an infantile character. Besides having an interesting concept, as always, it was just so dull unlike his most of his previous books. This kind of writing "style" is rather indulgent since reader's enjoyment (trust me that word is meaningful) seems to take secondary role to a rather bookish, for the most part didactic description of characters journeys of (self) discoveries. The book would make a nice basis for writing a mathermatical physics intro for kids (dummies) but it really does not make an interesting and engaging read. Disappointing. As for the rather long review it does give the book more credit than it deserves. Luckily as a reader and a buyer I hope I won't be deemed "petulant" and/or disingenious by the Master himself. I'll be just jumping at the next "Permuation City" & "Schild's Ladder" with both feet! Until then I'll be reading Theophile Gautier.

As I said in my own review on the SF Site, I think that the bugs inventing physics from first principles makes for a rather dry read and if Pavel found himself wanting to skip over those bits I can hardly blame him.
However, I do still think that there is significant beauty in this nook and to a certain extent I feel that criticising the book for being all about bugs doing maths is a bit like saying that Jane Austen's novels are all about women in posh dresses getting married. It's technically correct but I think it glosses over some of the interesting stuff.
Egan's account of the loneliness of the intellectual life is probably some of his most delicate and moving writing and it's there if you're looking to see the trees for the wood.

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