REVIEW SUMMARY: A book for people who are really, really into science.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A pair of post-humans searches for clues to the origin of DNA based life; a society dwelling inside an asteroid must discover the laws of gravity and relativity from scratch to save themselves.
PROS: This tour through the realm of physics is probably one of the best science lessons you’ll ever get.
CONS: If you don’t particularly want an awesome science lecture with your science fiction, there’s not much else here.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a book about science and why it’s important.
In Incandescence, Greg Egan appears to channel the spirit of Hal Clement. Readers may remember Clement fondly as one of the hardest of all hard sf writers. His stories consisted mostly of interesting science problems with a plot tacked on: What if there were a world with gravity roughly 200 times that of Earth? What would it look like? What would life there be like? (Mission of Gravity, 1954). Now Egan writes a very similar story. An alien society exists inside an asteroid-like object they call the Splinter. Outside is a realm of deadly brightness they call the Incandescence. Their existence is under threat, and it is only by investigating and describing the gravitational situation they are living in that they will be able to save themselves. Thus we get to watch a pre-industrial society, with no computers, bootstrap their scientific knowledge from Galileo through Newton all the way to the General Theory of Relativity. It’s three hundred years of science, compressed into half of a fairly short book, minus biology, chemistry and electromagnetism. If you find nothing amazing about a society being able to deduce the upper bound on physical speed (speed of light) without ever measuring the speed at which light travels, this may not be the book for you. It is certainly a book for me, though.
The tale of the Splinter is told in alternating chapters. The other plot is set in a post-human society millions of years in our future (a familiar milieu from several other Egan works such as Schild’s Ladder, 2001 and “Riding the Crocodile.” The latter story is a precursor to this one and can be found online or in the collection Dark Integers and Other Stories, 2008). Although the galactic core has been declared off limits by its inhabitants (they bounce out any physical object that tries to enter), information can be routed through the core to get to the other side of the galaxy. One being that took this shortcut was stopped midway and given some tantalizing clues about the origin of DNA-based life. Not being able to follow up herself, she passes the information on to our protagonist Rakesh. Rakesh has been hanging around for a millennia or so doing nothing much. He is waiting for some grand quest or scheme that he can pursue, something new, something that hasn’t been done before or seen before–a difficult challenge in a fully explored galaxy (except the core). This is (not surprisingly) the opportunity he’d been waiting for. With his companion Parantham (a being originally born of pure software, who can also become embodied as needed) he begins to follow the clues where ever they take him–starting with the core.
This is a book that is not just science fiction, it is also fiction about science. In the two plot threads we have the two main motivations that drive scientific advance, dramatized. For the beings in the Splinter, they must learn about the world around them or perish. They have to ramp up all their efforts, work together as a society, and put all their resources into figuring out what’s going on under very difficult circumstances. In our world so far we’ve only been able to really do this during wartime (think: Manhattan Project), but its arguable that in the face of climate change we really need to do it right now, no matter how hard it is. Meanwhile, Rakesh and Parantham are pursuing knowledge for the sheer joy of figuring something out and learning something new; adding to the overall store of knowledge in the universe. In real terms it doesn’t matter if they find out where the DNA traces came from, but the pursuit of knowledge helps make their lives worth living. Egan is not shy about what he sees as the primacy of science and investigation in human affairs. When Rakesh comes upon an alien species that simply goes about its business without any curiosity:
As for every human born since the Stone Age, as for the ancestors of every member of the Amalgam [Rakesh’s galaxy-spanning home society], there was nothing the universe was capable of doing that the Arkdwellers were not capable of comprehending… That was the ability, the potential in every one of them. There was, however, no drive to realize it: no curiosity, no joy in discovery, no restlessness, no dissatisfaction.
It’s a powerful statement, that we can and will be able to comprehend the universe and everything in it someday. Of course, there’s also a bit of us vs. them thinking embedded in there: We are the people who realize this and appreciate it, while They are simply drones, unaware of the glories of the universe. That may not be the healthiest attitude to take towards the 99% of humanity who are happy to use technology but don’t feel the need to understand the deeper stretches of reality.
However, for those of us who do appreciate it, getting through this book is a real ego-boost. Egan doesn’t make it easy for you. For one, he makes up words to defamiliarize the situation the Splinter folks are in. Instead of North-South, East-West and Front-Back (or some equivalent) the coordinate system of the Splinter is: shomal-junub, garm-sard, and rarb-sharq. He includes two diagrams, but those only show the shomal-junub and garm-sard plane–I really could have used another one showing rarb-sharq for clarity. Actually, a big help would have been new diagrams for each time the Splinter scientists become aware of a new angle of their situation. Presumably production costs ruled that out. (For those of you interested in even more detail of Splinter’s physical arrangements can check out the additional information on Egan’s accompanying website. It includes both illustrations and animated Java applets.) In a move reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, he also replaces the words for some relatively common things: “templates” instead of equations, for instance. That is a little less explicable, but does help prevent the reader from falling into comfortable mental patterns. This makes it all the more gratifying when you see them figure out something that you recognize: e.g., when they derive Kepler’s ratio for orbital periods, or when they construct a Foucault’s pendulum.
In the end the two plots begin to converge, as one suspects they must, but even that resolution is not as simple as you’d expect. Egan has worked out this story in every detail. Given that it is his first novel in six years, he appears to have put a lot of thought into every aspect of it. One can tell when he’s considered a possible reader objection and already come up with an answer for it. For instance, if you feel that it is mighty unlikely that a small group of individuals can make all the intuitive leaps needed to get from Galileo to Einstein in little more than a generation, you’ll appreciate the explanation that Egan makes sure to put in there for you. It is this sort of attention to detail, as well as his obvious love of the subject matter that makes Egan such a joy to read. I might add: don’t worry if you can’t visualize and confirm every single detail in the physics described therein. If you want, you can go back later and work through the steps yourself, or go to his website for more detail. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by the minutia. Enjoy the thrill of the chase, both for its own sake and for the sake of survival.