Greg Egan (1961- ) publishes works that challenge readers with rigorous, deeply-informed scientific speculation. He unapologetically delves into mathematics, physics, and other disciplines in his prose, putting him in the vanguard of the hard science fiction renaissance of the 1990s.
A working physicist and engineer, Karen Burnham is uniquely positioned to provide an in-depth study of Egan's science-heavy oeuvre. Her survey of the author's career covers novels like Permutation City and Schild's Ladder and the Hugo Award-winning novella "Oceanic," analyzing how Egan used cutting-edge scientific theory to explore ethical questions and the nature of humanity. As Burnham shows, Egan's collected works constitute a bold artistic statement: that narratives of science are equal to those of poetry and drama, and that science holds a place in the human condition as exalted as religion or art.
The volume includes a rare interview with the famously press-shy Egan covering his works, themes, intellectual interests, and thought processes.
About the Author
Karen Burnham works as a physicist and engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
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By Karen Burnham
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
WRITING RADICAL HARD SF
When people discuss Greg Egan today, it is usually in the context of "hard SF." Of course, hard SF as a term is nearly as difficult to define as "science fiction" itself, but whatever it is, Egan is certainly at the center of it. In The Hard SF Renaissance (2002), which included two of Egan's stories, editors David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer described him as "perhaps the most interesting hard SF writer to emerge in the 1990s" (25). Egan also served as a touchstone for several story notes in the anthology: Robert Reed "[finds himself] retreating from Greg Egan's more radical ideas" (282), Joan Slonczewski "seems closest in attitude to Greg Egan" (317), while Alastair Reynolds points him out as an exemplar in his essay "On Hard SF" (621); Karl Schroeder says, "At the moment I admire Greg Egan the most of the current generation of [hard SF] writers" (723).
What hard SF is and what it means to the field has evolved over the years. P. Schuyler Miller is credited with the invention of the term in 1957, when he used it simply to refer to the "core" of the SF field, the sort of works published, for example, by John W. Campbell in the pages of Astounding magazine. It was largely synonymous with what today we would refer to as "Golden Age" SF. Later, the term was pressed into service to draw a distinction between SF that dealt with physics and engineering (the "hard" sciences) and the SF being popularized during the New Wave, which often drew on the "soft sciences" such as psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Along those same lines, for a time hard SF referred to (especially in America) science fiction that had a particularly right-wing and militaristic viewpoint, such as that written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The other options were largely confined to sci-tech problem-solving stories in the pages of Analog magazine (the successor to Campbell's Astounding).
Gregory Benford was a rare American exception to that trend. Benford, a physics professor in California, famously defined hard SF as playing "with the net of scientific fact up and strung as tight as the story allows" (Hartwell and Cramer 1994, 16)—meaning to work (write) within the constraints imposed when one obeys the known laws of physics. In its strictest formulation, none of the common SF "cheats," such as warp drive or faster-than-light communications, would be allowed. In his 1980 novel Timescape, Benford played with the speculative frontiers of physics, considering notions of time and the possibility of communicating backward in time using particles called tachyons (posited in 1967, they have since become a staple of television SF shows such as Star Trek, about as far from hard SF as it is possible to get). However, Benford sought to humanize hard SF. He lavished as much, if not more, attention on his characters and their backgrounds as he did on the physics, and he consciously adopted techniques from modernist literature in order to do so.
Also presenting an alternative to militaristic SF and problem-solving stories was the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s. William Gibson's famous novel Neuromancer was published in 1984, and it pushed forward the literary possibilities of examining the human/machine interface in the increasingly digital world. However, very little of the technology in Neuromancer and other cyberpunk stories was grounded in realistic science and technology, either from an electronics or a biological point of view. So at the same time, in 1984, David Pringle and the editors of Interzone magazine in Britain put out a call for what was termed "radical, hard SF" (SF Encyclopedia: "Interzone"). Pringle and others argued for hard SF that featured rigorous extrapolation across a broad spectrum of science; faithful both to what is physically possible and what is socially and psychologically possible, with as much attention paid to character and society as to spaceships and black holes.
Science fiction of this stripe spread from the pages of Interzone and flourished in the late 1980s and through the 1990s. Kim Stanley Robinson achieved widespread acclaim for his Mars trilogy, which used rigorous science and engineering to depict the near-future colonization of Mars, while his main action was driven by a dynamic and evolving sociopolitical situation seen through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters. Meanwhile, David Brin's Earth (1990) took speculative but not impossible physics (a microscopic black hole dropped into the core of the Earth) and used it to drive a plot that was as much an excuse for near-future social and psychological world-building on a global scale as it was a hard SF thriller.
Biology matched physics for importance as hard SF reintegrated the "softer" sciences and investigated their deeply human consequences. In 1991 Nancy Kress won her first Hugo Award (the premier award of the science fiction field) for her novella "Beggars in Spain," which uses genetic engineering to examine the consequences of inequality projected into the future. Biotechnology played a role in the fields of cybernetics and artificial intelligence that appeared in cutting-edge 1990s SF, especially that from another author who responded to David Pringle's call for radical hard SF, Paul McAuley, a British biologist. In 1996 McAuley won the Arthur C. Clarke Award (given annually for a science fiction novel published in Britain) with Fairyland, a tale of black-market biotech. Joan Slonczewski, a biology professor, had already brought the same level of rigor to the biological speculations of A Door into Ocean (1986).
It is in this context that Greg Egan began appearing regularly in Interzone. Very few of Egan's short stories and none of his novels broke Benford's "playing with the net up" rule. However, those of Egan's early stories which delved into neuroscience, medical ethics, psychology, and bioengineering set him solidly at the core of the radical hard SF movement and its effort to integrate hard and soft sciences.
At the same time, other early Egan stories centered on questions of digital consciousness, which lined up neatly with another burgeoning movement, the Singularity. The idea behind the Singularity is that as computer-processing power increases exponentially, artificial intelligences will quickly outstrip us, leaving ordinary humans in the dustbin of history. In 1965, Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, formulated "Moore's law," stating that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit could double every two years. That idea of exponential increase in processing power became widely known and accepted in the 1990s. (Moore's Law continued to hold through 2012, although the rate of increase is expected to finally slow in the near future.) If you extrapolate that trend into the future and assume that intelligence/sapience is an inevitable emergent property of sufficiently complex systems, then artificial intelligence will arise and quickly outstrip the combined intelligences of all human beings alive at the time. Under one set of assumptions, the new intelligences will be to us as we are to bacteria, or at the very least they will be similarly incomprehensible. Ray Kurzweil popularized the idea in the press, and Vernor Vinge did the same in science fiction, with essays and award-winning stories such as A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) featuring superhuman intelligences. Charles Stross came to prominence in the late 1990s with the linked cycle of short stories known collectively as Accelerando, which form both an examination and critique of the Singularity future.
Egan's stories are often associated with the Singularity trope; for instance, in James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's Digital Rapture: A Singularity Anthology (2012), which investigates the Singularity through science fiction stories and non-fiction essays, Egan's story "Crystal Nights" appears right alongside Vinge's story "The Cookie Monster" and nonfiction by Kurzweil. Certainly, Egan's characters have explored many facets of the posthuman experience, even if they do not follow the Singularity model point for point. However, Egan tends to reject the Singularity as a real-world concept:
It's uncontroversial that if we could be digitized there's a lot of scope for our minds to be made faster, more efficient and less prone to various kinds of errors, but I see no compelling reason to believe in Vinge's notion of "transcendence," in which there are types of consciousness that are superior to our own in a qualitative fashion that goes completely beyond those forms of improvement.
In fact, I'd say humans crossed the point about 30,000 years ago [when] we gained the capacity to reason well enough to understand any physical process whatsoever, given enough time and patience. (Burnham interview)
Even when distancing himself from parts of the field—rejecting some of the fuzzy speculations of the Singularity or cyberpunk, eschewing the social capital of the convention scene, and so on—Egan remains a key figure. For those who view hard SF as the core of science fiction, Greg Egan's work lives immediately in that core. Speculations about biology, medicine, physics, and digital consciousness, combined with a vivid imagination and a talent for evoking a sense of wonder in science fiction readers, have all contributed to cement his status as one of the masters of the field.
WORKS AND CAREER TRAJECTORY
Egan did not start out as a standard bearer for hard SF. His first novel, An Unusual Angle, leans toward the literary and surreal rather than the science-fictional. Of this book, published by Norstrilia Press in 1983, Egan himself says:
For the benefit of those readers who have no idea what the book is about—most of them, I hope—An Unusual Angle is a kind of eccentric teenage loner story with surreal elements. The narrator literally has a movie camera inside his skull. I wrote it when I was sixteen, although I revised it slightly just before it was published, six years later.
It was very big-hearted of Norstrilia Press to publish it, but it didn't do them, or me, much good. They blew their money. I laboured under the mistaken impression that I could now write publishable fiction; it took me a while to realise that that simply wasn't true. Quarantine is the eighth novel I've written, and the first publishable one. That An Unusual Angle was published at all was really just a glitch. ("Burning the Motherhood Statements")
An Unusual Angle belongs to that period of Egan's career before he became Greg Egan, as it were. It is a novel that is generally mainstream with a few SF and fantasy elements that make the whole thing feel somewhat experimental. It contains references to films both popular and avant-garde—presumably stemming from that time in his life when Egan aspired to be a film director rather than an author and mathematician. However, even in this early book one can see that Egan uses the language of science as a basis for metaphor: "Enthusiastic English teacher inevitably explodes with 1000 watts (RMS) of ecstasy at every record-rending result." (Unusual Angle 20). RMS stands for Root Mean Square and denotes a particular convention for measuring electrical power. Including it as a modifier to "watts" in a nontechnical book is excessively geeky, even for a story of high-school alienation. Evidently, the precision of science has always been an integral part of Egan's worldview.
Along with that unusual novel, Egan published eight short stories through the 1980s, an assortment of SF and horror. He was no overnight success; for him the 1980s were filled with rejection slips and novels that did not sell. But once he started getting published, it did not take long before he started getting noticed. His fifth published story, "Neighbourhood Watch" (originally published in Aphelion 5), appeared in Year's Best Horror XVI (Wagner), and his sixth story, "Scatter My Ashes," showed up in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's Year's Best Fantasy, Second Annual Collection. But the appearance of "The Cutie" in Interzone in 1989 really marked a turning point, establishing Egan's presence as a pure SF writer. So far, Egan has published twenty-three of his sixty short stories in the pages of Interzone. As he put it in the early Eidolon interview: "David Pringle did help steer me away from horror; when he bought 'The Cutie'—my first SF story for Interzone—he made it clear that he thought I was heading in the right direction" ("Burning the Motherhood Statements"). "That little nudge in the right direction," he said "saved me from wasting another ten years trying to become the next Clive Barker!" (Aurealis interview). In "The Cutie" a single man longs to have a child but hasn't been able to find a partner with whom to have one. He opts for a bioengineered "Cutie" of the title—a child who looks human but will never develop human intelligence and will die at around age four. He becomes "pregnant" in order to grow the Cutie—the unnaturalness of this is highlighted, which makes more sense in the context of the horror stories that precede it in Egan's publishing history—and he loves the "child" immensely. But he is devastated when the Cutie learns to speak—obviously she is developing greater-than-advertised intelligence but will still die at four. As with several of Egan's other early stories, the author's hand is obviously tipping the scales, with a narrative that at times seems manipulated instead of flowing naturally. It is difficult, for example, to believe that there would be a market for semi-human babies who die young, or that a protagonist obsessed with child-nurturing would not simply adopt. However, while this is a story that lightly hits some horror buttons, it is firmly on the side of near-future, bioethics-oriented SF.
After Pringle's editorial intervention, 1990 proved to be Egan's breakout year, with eight stories appearing in venues such as Interzone and Asimov's as well as smaller venues such as Pulphouse and Eidolon. That year Egan showed up on the Interzone readers' poll three times, winning with "Learning to Be Me," twice on the Asimov's readers' poll, and five times on Locus magazine's recommended reading list—an impressive showing by any measure. He continued appearing in annual Year's Best anthologies, with "Learning to Be Me" and "The Caress" both appearing in the eighth volume in Gardner Dozois's long-running Year's Best Science Fiction anthology series. Dozois, then editor of Asimov's magazine, became a major booster of Egan's work, and he has included Egan's stories in thirteen Year's Best anthologies to date, as well as placing them in several themed anthologies. Asimov's was second only to Interzone in its embrace of Egan's short fiction; to date, fourteen of his stories have appeared there. In his review of Distress, Gary K. Wolfe of Locus magazine noted in April 1996 that "[Egan] was the first writer to have two stories in the Dozois annual for two years running."
In Dozois's recollection:
I first noticed Greg Egan's work in Interzone, where he'd published a couple of stories such as "Scatter My Ashes" that I suppose would have to be called technohorror. When he first started sending stories to me at Asimov's—and, as I recall, he sent a number at once—there were both SF stories and horror stories in the batch; I encouraged him to send more SF, and indicated that I wasn't particularly interested in the horror. His early stories also tended to be short and sketchy—he'd have a great new idea in them, but wouldn't do much with it fictionally (the early stories of Charles Stross were similar); all they would really have going for them was the idea. (Locus Roundtable, March 4, 2012)
Looking at the stories published in that breakout year 1990, a core theme of Egan's fiction emerges with repeated inquiries into the question of identity. One of his most important stories, "Learning to Be Me," is critically concerned with identity and how it may be maintained (or not) when transforming into an immortal, digital consciousness. Even a story with only the most hand-waving of scientific premises, "The Safe-Deposit Box," wonders how a person who inhabits a different body every day could construct a coherent sense of self. In "Axiomatic" he posits bioengineered nanotech that when inhaled can literally change one's mind—rewiring neural structures in such a way, for instance, that Buddhism will seem the only possible truth of the universe or, as in the case of the protagonist, lowering one's inhibition against committing murder. What does it mean to be you when changing your brain chemistry can alter your most cherished convictions? We will continue to see Egan focusing on questions of identity through all of his short fiction and novels.
Excerpted from GREG EGAN by Karen Burnham. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Writing Radical Hard SF 17
Chapter 2 Ethical Standards 51
Chapter 3 Identity and Consciousness 76
Chapter 4 Scientific Analysis 101
Chapter 5 Science and Society 128
Interview with Greg Egan 157
A Greg Egan Bibliography 181
Works Cited 183