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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 3): Discussion of Greg Egan’s “Crystal Nights” and Others

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, Karen Burnham and Karen Lord discuss the Ted Chiang story “Hell is the Absence of God” as well as the Greg Egan stories “Crystal Nights,” “Yeyuka,” and “Closer.” They talk about topics such as third person omniscient narrators, villains, suffering, and the trope of Westerners sacrificing fingers for Africa. Karen Burnham would like to add that the story “Microcosmic God,” whose author she forgot, was written by Theodore Sturgeon.

Next week we’ll be discussing Erna Brodber’s The Rainmaker’s Mistake, and after that we’ll return to Greg Egan’s short fiction.

About Karen Burnham (82 Articles)
Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a sf/f reviewer and critic. She has worked on the Orion and Dream Chaser spacecraft and written for SFSignal, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine.

11 Comments on SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 3): Discussion of Greg Egan’s “Crystal Nights” and Others

  1. I’ll have to find those Egan stories.

  2. Not really that hard to find

    Crystal Nights (
    Yeyuka (
    Closer (

    great podcast (I went through the other two as well and enjoyed them just as much) and I loved that Karen pointed out the big problem with Closer’s ending (people are not snapshots frozen in time), thought it’s IMHO still a pretty powerful story in a, at least for me, very creepy way

    the criticism of Yeyuka feels right, thought it’s one of these things that I probably wouldn’t have seen if nobody would have mentioned it, I mean yeah, a finger vs saving lives doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice in hindsight, but Egan probably didn’t wanted to go out all melodramatic

  3. Here’s an audio version of Crystal Nights:

  4. Yeah, I saw you tweeted that yesterday, Tam. I thought that was very cool.

    • I was streaming the beginning in my car from dropbox, and it sounded exactly like Sturgeon’s Microcosmic God (and similar to GRRM’s Sand Kings). Then the player lost its place. Grrr. I huffduff’d it and downloaded it to the Podcaster app.

  5. Principal Bundle // August 25, 2012 at 11:20 am //

    The female scientist in “Crystal Nights” recoils from the prospect of thousands of generations of sentient AIs suffering and dying for the sake of this man’s project: AIs starting with less than human levels of self-awareness, but eventually reaching a comparable level, and supposedly achieving human intelligence and beyond. And these qualms get dismissed as naive in the discussion because … children have to scrape their knees when learning to walk? Really? These things are morally equivalent?

  6. I think we all agree that causing the suffering and death of a huge number of sentient AIs in the service of Daniel’s project is indefensible. What I was going for was to question the broader utility of suffering: if there is suffering and death in this universe, even for those of us operating on our own, for our own ends, is that necessarily evil? Do we have to condemn a god for creating a universe like that, or is suffering sometimes acceptable? That’s when Karen Lord pointed out that children need to be allowed to suffer in order to learn, and that’s not necessarily evil.

    • Principal Bundle // August 25, 2012 at 5:55 pm //

      But in respect to our own universe, rather than the artificial one in “Crystal Nights”, the remarks seem even more off-target. The Problem of Evil in theology has to tackle events on the scale of the Holocaust and the Black Death. Philosophers and theologians haven’t been agonizing over this for centuries because children skin their knees.

  7. No kidding! That’s why when Karen Lord asked if we’d solved the problem of suffering, the response was a unanimous ‘No!’ I’m afraid neither of us are philosophers, and I beat a hasty retreat back to literature once I’d realized how the deep the waters were in which we were treading. Solving the problems of evil and suffering is probably not best done in a one hour podcast about science fiction.

    • I should probably also add that I believe that in the context of the story “Crystal Nights,” Egan intends the reader to start to examine these arguments as they apply to our own universe; however, given the clear moral wrong that Daniel is perpetrating, the example of the story doesn’t do too much to advance our understanding of the issue in regards to our own experience.

  8. Principal Bundle // August 25, 2012 at 11:22 pm //

    I believe … Egan intends the reader to start to examine these arguments as they apply to our own universe

    In the Author’s Introduction to the collection Crystal Nights and Other Stories Egan says he wrote the story to atone for the casual way he had his characters evolve sentient life in Permutation City, which he later decided was morally reprehensible. Given that Egan is an atheist, I’m not sure he would spend much time trying to decide whether God deserves to be worshipped or condemned for evolving us. The Problem of Evil is a non-problem for atheists: terrible things happen, for obvious natural causes, and most of them are nobody’s fault.

    If the story has a message, it seems to be that our own ancestors suffered — through nobody’s fault — as part of the process that gave us our intelligence and other great benefits … but that this is not an excuse for anyone to repeat the whole process, given that we have a choice in the matter. Daniel is impatient and wants to use the same kind of brute force that natural selection used. Julie (the researcher Daniel interviews at the start) calls for the use of “a little more patience and self-knowledge”.

    That’s why I was shocked when Karen Lord described her attitude as “a bit naive”. I’ve just re-read the story, and I can’t find a single line where Julie is insisting that AIs should be cosseted and wrapped in cotton wool to a greater extent than a human child — she never says that the whole thing’s immoral unless the AIs experience literally no discomfort.

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