Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Many worlds and many minds

After my last few reads of him, I keep saying that I'm going to give Greg Egan a bit of a rest because reading his mind-bending novels is clearly above my pay grade. They're really good, but they're hard, hard reads (in the science fiction sense; we're not in the misery genre here). However, since it's recently been Birthday-Christmas season, I've received quite a pile of new titles, two of which were written by Mr. Egan. So, in order to free up some book shelf space, I'm duty bound to tackle him again. That said, it's a little easier this time since Axiomatic is a collection of Egan's short stories.

The collection is Egan's first, and consists of stories published between 1989 and 1992. Pre-blog, I read his later collection, Luminous (which was also a present from C), and it definitely confirmed him as a must-read for me. The stories here range extremely widely in their subject and intent, although plasticity of mind, body and reality is a recurring theme.

Much as with his novel Quarantine, he visits quantum mechanics in the great opening story, The Infinite Assassin, inventing a special assassin who travels between universes to kill those with similar powers but who are intent to reshaping reality to suit themselves. The Hundred-Light-Year Diary imagines a future where everyone's daily lives are mapped out by diary entries ostensibly from the future. In The Caress, a detective who discovers a human-cheetah chimera is kidnapped to pose in a megalomaniac's reconstruction of Fernand Khnoff's most famous work. The widower protagonist of the eponymous Axiomatic takes an implant to "rewrite" his objections to capital punishment so that he can understand, and avenge, the murder of his wife. Meanwhile, the mind of the narrator in The Safe-Deposit Box flits nightly between different bodies, and uses the titular box to store the scraps of information he collects while unravelling his mysterious condition. Switching to electronic minds, Learning To Be Me concerns jewels, the artificial replacements for human brains that develop alongside them, and the conundrum of where consciousness really lies. The Moral Virologist is a fundamentalist with a training in molecular biology who creates a plague to target the "immoral", but his accuracy is blunted by biology's loopholes. In Closer a couple desire to know each other so completely that they trade bodies and even merge minds, but is perfect harmonisation really what lovers need?

As the selection above suggests, the collection is full of exotic treatments of biology, consciousness and reality. Several of the stories are simply jaw-droppingly imaginative and clever in the development and expansion of their central ideas, and Egan is almost uniformly excellent at wringing the most out of the worlds that he briefly creates. There are a couple of less successful stories, but even these contain the germ of a good idea.

More generally, I find that short stories suit Egan better than full-length novels. While their truncated page-count means that they lack the worked-out detail that his novels contain, this works in Egan's favour since he's forced to rein in his tendency to digress into full-throated dissections of physics. Also, since characterisation generally isn't a strong point of his novels, the necessary abbreviation of the occupants of his short stories obscures this weakness.

Overall, an excellent collection of stories. Not quite as good as the later Luminous I'd have said, but perhaps not surprising given that this contains his first forays into science fiction writing. And undoubtedly a more gentle introduction to Egan's obsession with the nature of reality and consciousness than his more gung-ho novels. A definite incentive to track down more of his short fiction.

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