Post a Comment. Deniz Yuret's Homepage. March 01, Incandescence by Greg Egan. Greg Egan's latest novel Incandescence is a great thought experiment exploring how a primitive alien race living inside the tunnels of an asteroid orbiting around a neutron star can find evidence for Newtonian physics and even general relativity using simple experiments inside their closed world.
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But finding stuff out is not enough in itself to sustain a page fictional narrative. 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. 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.
To do this they must travel into the realm of the Aloof. 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. 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. 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 contemplated this. With the same period? Yes, their exchanges really are as dry and unengaging as that, pretty much all the way through. Parantham and Rakesh are not much better. 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.
On the other hand there are some witty touches too. And when the two narratives come together, as we know they must, the story is over, apart from a rather leaden Prime Directive dilemma. 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. 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.
More, the framing of the tale throws up awkwardnesses. On the one hand Egan flourishes various super-high-tech features of his future life. 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? 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 brings me to the subject of infodumping. 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 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. Prince Amerigo removed his clothes. 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 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. 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?
But it is more than that. It is a desire to communicate a large quantity of information in as efficient a manner as possible. 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. 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. 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. Except for one small flaw 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. 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.
A much more elegant way of expressing yourself than saying 'This is the sort of English I won't put up with. 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 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.
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. 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.
I realise that hard SF isn't everyone's cuppa, but it's definitely mine, and I can't fault his writing either. I must say that you got one thing spot-on: those damned, blasted silly names for directions.
High-flying literary SF with lots of made-up words is great if done well e. I can't believe that I was the only one.
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.
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.
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The long-awaited new novel from Greg Egan! The Amalgam spans nearly the entire galaxy, and is composed of innumerable beings from a wild variety of races, some human or near it, some entirely other. The one place that they cannot go is the bulge, the bright, hot center of the galaxy. There dwell the Aloof, who for millions of years have deflected any and all attempts to communicate with or visit them.
Incandescence is a science fiction novel by Australian author Greg Egan. The book is based on the idea that the theory of general relativity could be discovered by a pre-industrial civilisation. The novel has two narratives in alternate chapters. The first follows two citizens of the Amalgam, a Milky Way -spanning civilisation, investigating the origin of DNA found on a meteor by the Aloof. The Aloof control the galactic core and, until the novel begins, have rejected all attempts at contact by the Amalgam.
By David Langford. SIX years after his last novel , Greg Egan returns with an extraordinary work of ultra-hard science fiction. Its two plot strands are different kinds of quest. In a far-future interstellar community, one of our descendants gets the chance to explore the galactic core, whose mysterious inhabitants, the Aloof, have previously rebuffed all contact. Meanwhile, within the Splinter, a translucent habitat moving through the perpetual light known as the Incandescence, these cousins are trying to fathom the universe. Existing subscribers, please log in with your email address to link your account access.