INTERVIEW: Greg Egan on ORTHOGONAL and Thirty Years of Writing Hard Science Fiction

Greg Egan was born in 1961. Since the early ’80s he has published twelve novels and more than fifty short stories, winning the Hugo Award for his novella “Oceanic” and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel Permutation City. He lives in Perth, Australia.

Greg took a few minutes to chat with me about his recently completed Orthogonal trilogy, how easy and fun it is to mess with the laws of physics, e-book bells and whistles, Karen Burnham’s book on his works, and more. Famous for his hard science fiction, he has supplemented many of his works with additional material that is available on his website.

Let’s get to the interview!


Q: The world of the Orthogonal trilogy followed different laws of the universe that we do. For example, for Yalda and everyone on her planet, the speed of light isn’t a constant. What kind of research did you do to make sure the changed laws and new math would be consistent as the story progressed?

Greg Egan: In our own universe, there’s a part of the foundations of physics that is very well understood. That includes all the basic facts about time and motion, light and matter, heat and energy — and over the last century or so, the way these things are interconnected has been mapped out very clearly.

What I did in creating the Orthogonal universe was make a single alteration in the basement of that structure, replacing the three dimensions of space and one of time with four essentially interchangeable dimensions. Mathematicians call this the “signature” of the geometry. Because we know how the usual “3+1″ signature determines so much of the physics we’re familiar with, I could retrace all the standard connections and adapt them to the new signature. For example, if there is no real difference between space and time, there can’t be a special velocity built into the vacuum, any more than there is a “special direction” in empty space. That’s why there is no constant speed of light in the Orthogonal universe. And as I looked at the ramifications in more detail, all sorts of strange and wonderful things emerged. Perhaps the most bizarre is that, although light still carries energy, it comes with an opposite sign to kinetic energy or chemical energy, which means that plants can make food by emitting light rather than absorbing it.

I spent about six months working through the consequences for different phenomena, tracing the effects on electromagnetism, thermodynamics, general relativity and quantum mechanics. But once you reach the level of complex chemistry and biology, even in our own universe it takes teams of specialists with supercomputers to make predictions grounded in fundamental physics, so dealing with those things in the Orthogonal universe was a matter of developing an intuitive sense of what was possible under the new rules.

Q: The final book in the Orthogonal trilogy, The Arrows of Time, comes out in the US this August and was released in the UK last November. What can fans of the trilogy look forward to in this newest volume?

Greg Egan: At the heart of this book is the politics and philosophy of what it would mean to know the future. The possibility of sending messages back in time has been implicit in the physics of the Orthogonal universe from the start, but it’s only now that the travellers’ circumstances and technology put it within reach. In the previous volume, their culture had to absorb a form of reproductive technology that completely changed the roles of the sexes, but this is even more radical and divisive. So there’s a certain amount of violence and political intrigue, but also an expedition that tries to find a peaceful solution by seeing if it’s possible to colonise a planet where the thermodynamic arrow of time carried by the air and the soil runs in the opposite direction to that of the would-be colonisers.

Q: You are known for writing extremely dense hard science novels and short stories. Writing wise, what’s the trick to including so much technical information into the prose without losing the reader?

Greg Egan: The real trick is to take it for granted that the reader is intelligent, engaged and curious, and would be bitterly disappointed if a story contained an amazing idea but then dumbed it down or glossed over the details. The only reason humans have anything close to an understanding of who and what we are, and the only reason we have a substantial intellectual and material culture, is because we’re capable of handling the details. When I write about science, real or imaginary, it’s through the eyes of characters who understand that discovering how their universe works is by far the most important story in history.

Q: You’ve been publishing science fiction for over 30 years, with your first novel, An Unusual Angle, being published in 1983. What changes have you seen in the science fiction publishing community over the last thirty years?

Greg Egan: Fashions in sub-genres ebb and flow, and there’s the perennial phenomenon of waves of authors and commentators bursting on stage, announcing that they’ve stormed the citadel of the despised old guard, and demanding to be fêted as the saviours of the genre. But in terms of publishing itself, I’d say the slide towards e-books is a trend that is probably not going to be undone. I recently brought out my own e-book editions of all of my earlier books that had gone out of print in the US, which was an interesting exercise. I spent a couple of months creating a special multimedia version of Diaspora for the iPad, but the ordinary, plain-text version for the Kindle outsold it about twenty-to-one, even though both versions were priced identically. So at least for the foreseeable future, I’ll probably keep doing what I’ve been doing since the late 90s, which is to put all the interactive bells and whistles on my web site rather than trying to incorporate them into the books themselves — even when the books are purely digital.

Q: How has your own writing evolved over your career? Have you found yourself drawn towards different story structures, character types, philosophies, or writing styles over the years?

Greg Egan: I used to have a strong preference for first-person writing, and one of my novels, Quarantine, was even written in first-person, present tense. There were good reasons for that, but it might be a spoiler to reveal them. Some people are positively allergic to first-person and claim it’s psychologically unrealistic or interferes with suspension of disbelief, but I don’t accept either position: there are times when we really do feel as if we’re narrating our own lives moment by moment, but there are also cases when this is simply the most powerful way to frame the events of a story, even if it’s not how the characters were likely to have experienced them at the time.

Q: What authors inspired you to start writing, or more specifically, to write science fiction?

Greg Egan: When I was very young, in the 1960s and early 70s, I read pretty much every SF novel that made its way into the local library. So Aldiss, Asimov, Bester, Clarke, Delany, Dick, Leinster, Le Guin, Pohl, Vonnegut, Zelazny were part of the landscape, part of the air I breathed. And though I had favourites, it almost seemed like a collective enterprise to me: I just wanted to write SF, because that was what all these people were writing. Later on, in my teens, I probably found Larry Niven the most inspiring, with books like Protector and Ringworld and The Mote in God’s Eye. In my twenties I drifted more towards writers like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, and I was starting to feel very jaded about SF, but it was Greg Bear’s Blood Music that got me excited about the genre again.

Q: Your 1998 short story, “Oceanic” (click to read online), won the Hugo, the Locus, and the Asimov’s Reader Poll, along with the Seiun and the Hayakawa’s SF Magazine Reader’s Award. What was it about “Oceanic” that spoke (and still speaks) to so many readers?

Greg Egan: I don’t really know. It’s a story about growing out of religion, and both the liberation and the sense of loss that accompanies that, so perhaps it resonates with people’s personal experience.

Q: As part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, Karen Burnham recently authored a study of your career. Do you see yourself as a Master of Science Fiction? What do you think of Karen’s book?

Greg Egan: I wouldn’t use the word “Master” about anyone; outside the context of masters and apprentices in pre-industrial Europe, it sounds comically bombastic to me. But I suppose they couldn’t call the series “Some modern SF writers whose work we hoped might be interesting enough to sustain book-length monographs.” I’m grateful that Karen Burnham felt it was worth devoting so much of her time to the subject, but clearly I’m not part of the target readership, so I’ll leave it to other people to offer opinions on the book.

Q: Now that Orthogonal is wrapped up, what do you plan to work on next?

Greg Egan: I’ve been writing a few short stories and thinking about the next novel, but I haven’t committed myself to a definite plan yet.

5 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Greg Egan on ORTHOGONAL and Thirty Years of Writing Hard Science Fiction”

  1. Nice to see a Greg Egan interview touching on Orthogonal – which was awesome! I suspect it’ll invite the usual criticism that Greg Egan’s work does, alluded to in the interview – namely, that he doesn’t shy away from making the reader do a lot of heavy lifting. Certainly true here – but I think it’s more appropriate to cast it as an observation than a criticism. If you’re prepared to put in the work, you’ll be rewarded in spades. For this trilogy, I found that the counter-intuitive parts were best skimmed over first time through, then revisited at the end of each chapter, for a deeper appreciation not only of the weird almost-familiar physics, but of the startling endeavour that this story represents.

    Regarding the Karen Burnham book – I’ve just finished it, and I’d recommend it to Egan fans for the extended interview alone. The thoughtful analysis of his output gives the reader an always-welcome excuse to return to the source material; in my case, it’s given me an almost reverent appreciation of Incandescence, a novel I was already highly impressed with. If there was a multimedia version of that novel, I’d consider buying an iPad for it alone!

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