I have to say I didn’t think Australia’s Greg Egan to be an important science fiction author – I have seen a few mentions of his 1994 novel Permutation City in a few lists over the years, but that’s about it. He got a Hugo for a novella, but overall he’s not a prize winner, and there doesn’t seem to be a big buzz when a new title of his appears.
But all those parameters are social stuff, and Egan is “famously reclusive”. This excerpt from his website paints his character a bit: “I do not approve of the practice of using quotes from authors on book jackets, since I believe it blurs the distinction between advertising copy writing and reviewing. I’ve never provided such quotes myself, or sought them for my own books. However, because I neglected to tell my new editor at Gollancz how I felt about this, the UK editions of Schild’s Ladder have some comments by Stephen Baxter on the jacket, alongside the excerpts from bona fide reviews of previous books. This glitch was my fault entirely, of course, and I’ll do my best to ensure that nothing similar happens again.”
I like that. Egan seems to be rigorous, a man of principle, and he doesn’t care for commercialism – he also doesn’t attend conventions or sign books, for instance. But enough about the social: what about the writing itself?
In that regard, it’s also no surprise Egan isn’t really popular: he writes very dense, hard theoretical science fiction. Harder than Seveneves, to give you a benchmark. Much, much harder than Kim Stanley Robinson. Even Blindsight was a walk in the park compared to this. That’s also because Egan’s writing generally focuses on the hardest of hard science: mathematics and quantum theory. Other themes include the nature of consciousness, “genetics, simulated reality, posthumanism, mind transfer, sexuality, artificial intelligence, and the superiority of rational naturalism over religion.”
I have to say, based on reading Schild’s Ladder: Holy Moly, Egan is one of today’s most important writers of speculative literature, and those who like their stuff only light and fluffy are missing out big time. This is highly stimulating stuff. When I was 150 pages in, I went on a quarantine shopping spree and ordered 5 other of his books.
I used to think the Culture of Iain M. Banks represented the creative pinnacle of imagining a transhumanist future, but consider that position revised: it seems Egan has picked up the baton a long time ago.
Schild’s Ladder is a rich book, that deserves a thorough intellectual analysis, but I don’t feel like writing a lengthy text this time, so I’ll stick to the basics of a regular review. I’m sorry for the clunky format.
Good, never gets in the way nor cumbersome. Maybe Egan uses the same formula of explicit similes a bit too much, but on the other hand, they always manage to illuminate what otherwise would remain abstract concepts. He’s also self-aware on the matter, one character exclaiming “I’m not an idiot. (…) You don’t need to spoon-feed me similes”.
Humans can live for millennia. Some have gone fully digital and ditched their bodies. The characters are not the focus of the book, but they are not lifeless cardboard either. The focus of the book is clearly the ideas. This does not mean Egan doesn’t understand human psychology – on the contrary. There is some neat stuff on living for hundreds of years, being acorporeal, free will, the effects of traveling to other star systems – there’s planet that goes collectively into “Slowdown” whenever somebody wants to travel for a couple of centuries, so they don’t fall out of sync.
Believe it or not, this is a page turner. It’s a variation on the BIG DUMB OBJECT story, but with a twist. The object is really, really big. In six hundred years, it has swallowed two thousand inhabited star systems, and it’s still growing. It’s the biggest big dumb object I’ve ever read about.
It’s not fully clear what Egan’s mind-body problem solution is. He seems to sidestep this, and operates from the idea that we are just information translatable into all kinds of signals.
As the book deals with advanced quantum physics, a big part of the story obviously is speculation, and there’s even a big chunk of handwavium. This doesn’t mean the book has no merit scientifically, and Egan aims for consistency with the latest scientific insights. On his website, there’s heaps of theoretical stuff that complement his books.
Man, this also a great book on gender, albeit as a sideshow. It even has a few pages that function as a pastiche on all those other science fiction books that imagine future forms of gender norms & sexuality. Egan’s own solution is graceful, without any fuss.
Social Darwinism gets a walloping uppercut too.
It’s kind of a pissing contest: who can write the most alien aliens? Whose grasp on weird xenobiology is the best? What kind of strange alien language can I invent? Etc. Well, this book has the best alien aliens I have ever read about. They are not the focus of the book, mind you. I will not spoil more, but Egan has managed to truly think outside the box.
TOO DENSE OR NOT TOO DENSE?
I already wrote this was a page turner, yet it is also extremely dense hard SF. At times there are passages that went over my head. I’m absolutely no specialist, but in the last 25 years I think I’ve easily read over 1500 pages of non-fiction on quantum theory. So I’m not entirely uneducated on the matter either. I’m just saying, some parts of this book really deal with complex stuff.
The good news is that I could still enjoy the book without fully understanding its full theoretical scope. I have the hunch that if one would understand all the details, one’s admiration for Egan would increase more – a lot even.
As such, I think Egan managed something pretty unique: I think this book is both intellectually stimulating for both the quantum scientist and the layman. True, the quantum scientist will get the most out of it, but there’s so much good packed here, that the layman reader still feels to have hit a big vein of gold.
Obviously, not all laymen should enter. If you’re not willing to pay attention, and if theoretical matters don’t interest you, this is not the book for you.
By the way: dense doesn’t mean boring. There’s a great sense of discovery & wonder throughout, and it has elements of space opera, even a tad of horror in one scene. A couple of times the book is even outright funny.
I didn’t think I could still be surprised like this by science fiction. As an achievement of human intellect, imagination & creativity, Schild’s Ladder gets 5 stars, easily. As a reading experience I’d say 4 or 4.5: the ending is a bit rushed, the link with the title is underdeveloped in the characters, and I’m just a layman, so there’s that.
Highly, highly recommended.