INCANDESCENCE – Greg Egan (2008)

Incandescence egan“All I learnt in the void was that our best guess so far is certainly wrong.”

While not totally unfamiliar with Greg Egan – I’ve read the brilliant Schild’s Ladder, and his early Quarantine – I did start Incandescence with the wrong expectations.

The blurb of the British 2009 Gollancz paperback promises something akin to space opera:

A million years from now, the galaxy is divided between the Amalgam, a vast, cooperative meta-civilisation, and the Aloof, the silent occupiers of the galactic core. The Aloof have long rejected all attempts by the Amalgam to enter their territory, but travellers intrepid enough can take a perilous ride as unencrypted data in their communications network, providing a short-cut across the galaxy’s central bulge.

Rakesh has waited all his life for adventure to come calling. When he meets a traveller who claims she was woken by the Aloof mid-journey and shown a meteor full of traces of DNA, he accepts her challenge to hunt down the uncharted world from which the meteor came, deep in the Aloof’s territory. 

Roi and Zak live inside the Splinter, a translucent world of rock that swims in a sea of light they call the Incandescence. They live on the margins of a rigidly organised society, seeking to decipher the subtle clues that might reveal the true nature of the Splinter. In fact, their world is in danger of extinction, and as the evidence accumulates, Roi, Zak, and a growing band of recruits struggle to understand and take control of their fate.

As Rakesh gradually uncovers the history of the lost DNA world, his search leads him to startling revelations about the Splinter – and the true nature and motives of the Aloof.”

I’ve quoted it in full, because it is striking because of two things: Egan’s own rigorous ethics concerning book jackets (see my review of Schild’s Ladder for the full anecdote), and his scathing reply to a review of Incandescence by Adam Roberts in Strange Horizons. Let me try to explain, and provide my own review of sorts by doing so.

While the blurb isn’t wrong, it does undersell one crucial thing about Incandescence: the nature of Roi and Zak’s deciphering of subtle clues. The book alternates every other chapter between Rakesh point of view, and the Splinter’s. Each viewpoint takes up about 50% of page time, so nearly half of the book deals with the deciphering.

This deciphering half embodies the novel’s main idea: on Scalzi’s blog Egan wrote that the book “grew out of the notion that the theory of general relativity — widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of human intellectual achievement — could be discovered by a pre-industrial civilization with no steam engines, no electric lights, no radio transmitters, and absolutely no tradition of astronomy.”

Big parts of Roi and Zak’s chapters are descriptions of and dialogue about physics experiments concerning gravity, motion and orbits, and your mileage may vary. That is to say: at times it was a bit too dry, long-winded and detailed for my tastes. Not that I don’t like science or non-fiction (on the contrary), but the subject matter and the way it was presented wasn’t fully for me. This is not to say I didn’t like the book, but it did alter my reading experience, and ultimately knocked off a star or 2 should I have to rate that reading experience – mind you, not the book per se. More on that later.

It is all the more striking because of these two quotes by Egan, in his reaction to that review:

“A few reviewers complained that they had trouble keeping straight the physical meanings of the Splinterites’ directions. This leaves me wondering if they’ve really never encountered a book before that benefits from being read with a pad of paper and a pen beside it, or whether they’re just so hung up on the idea that only non-fiction should be accompanied by note-taking and diagram-scribbling that it never even occurred to them to do this. I realise that some people do much of their reading with one hand on a strap in a crowded bus or train carriage, but books simply don’t come with a guarantee that they can be properly enjoyed under such conditions.”


“The mystery is why [Roberts] bought the ticket in the first place; a previous encounter with Schild’s Ladder should have warned off any but the most masochistic of science-haters.”

While the review of Roberts is indeed self-serving and malicious – so much, that it put me off reading The Thing Itself (*) forever, a book I had serendipitously picked from my shelves after I finished Incandescence, unaware of the fact that its author had written a review of Egan’s book – I don’t fully buy the ticket theory, especially not as the blurb isn’t fully clear on what’s inside.

I’ve read Schild’s Ladder myself, and while some of its science went over my head, I loved it. Incandescence is another affair, structurally, but also because much more of its page time deals with science, and more specifically gravity & motion. That’s something very specific, and more or less predictable too: fairly early on readers get the idea of where Roi and Zak are heading – even though they discover things in a totally different manner than we did, due to their different surroundings – and as such the scientific joy of this book is procedural. Still, the fact that it is a well-known theory takes some of the tension out of the story, and that’s a crucial difference with Schild’s Ladder.

On the other hand, I have to say the overall story arc of the Splinter is interesting, and I liked its society and the changes it went through: the book is an interesting take on the development of the scientific (hive) mind, and the tensions between being an individual and being part of a group.

While an important chunk of the novel was not what I expected, I absolutely loved Rakesh’s story: Egan’s posthumanist vision again delivers, and there are brilliant details scattered throughout the book – on technology, on the galaxy, on first contact ethics, on genetics and social engineering, on the importance of environmental context for heuristic endeavors. I also loved the double arcs of Incandescence combined: the way the two narratives tie up is wonderful – even if it is seemingly misunderstood by a fair number of readers.

After a while, I began reading Roi and Zak’s parts without trying to understand the theoretical side of their arc – not even with a mental pad of paper and a pen – and from that moment on the book worked for me. The moment I cut my loses and decided the nuts and bolts of the discovery of general relativity didn’t really interest me, it became a joy to read on. I know I missed an important part of what Egan tried to do with this book, but I was too invested in the overall story to stop reading, and either way, I bought the damn ticket, so it’s my prerogative anyway.

Ironically, all this could be considered fitting: boredom plays an interesting role in the story in two distinct ways, so the fact that I felt parts of the book were boring adds a meta-layer to that theme – all the more so because parts were boring partly because I was already familiar with general relativity, not unlike a citizen of the hyper-informed Amalgam.

A strange hybrid then. I’d say 2 stars for one part of the reading experience, 4 stars for the other, and the full 5 stars for the concept. I’ve had a few novels of his on my TBR since I read Schild’s Ladder, and after finishing Incandescence I’ve yet again ordered more of Egan.

(*) I’ve read the first 30 pages of THE THING ITSELF (2015), and that book seems to be structurally built on bullshit, in the Frankfurterian sense, not even once, but twice. That is all the more infuriating as it tries to give itself a veneer of seriousness by using Immanuel Kant – and whatever you think of him, at least he tried being consistent and honest.

Two cases of bullshit?

One: the Fermi paradox is not about being unable to perceive aliens because of Kant: it deals with aliens in the universe that is observable to us, not in the universe an sich. It’s obviously possible that there are aliens we cannot perceive because of a Kantian reason, but again, that’s not what the Fermi paradox is about – actually Egan’s Schild’s Ladder touches on alien aliens in a way that’s more interesting.

Two, and more importantly: it is total bullshit that you could program A.I. to circumvent Kant: also an A.I. would have specific senses and conceptualizing frameworks, and as such no access to the Ding an sich – you’d need at least an infinite amount of different senses and frameworks to get around it, and that’s impossible.

I also didn’t like the smug, poseur-ish narrative voice – but I acknowledge that could have changed as I understand some other chapters are written in other registers, etc. While I’m not claiming all this to be the definitive take on Adam Roberts‘ book, I’m having a hard time envisioning how Roberts wrote himself out of these two theoretical objections, and either way, while I was already annoyed after 15 pages, I wasn’t interested anymore after I read his Incandescence review.

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.


42 responses to “INCANDESCENCE – Greg Egan (2008)

  1. Glad you’re still enjoying Egan. I hope it stays that way 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Quarantine was my first Egan. I figured I wasn’t going to like it based on your review but I wanted to try it, you know, just in case.

    It pretty much turned out how I thought it would, hahahahaa 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Aonghus Fallon

    I couldn’t resist checking out Roberts’ original review. Not having read Egan’s actual book – the only work I’ve read by him so far is Wang’s Carpet – I can’t say how accurate or inaccurate it is. That said, books in which the characters try to solve something the reader already knows tend to be anti-climactic, although I appreciate that the how can sometimes be as interesting as the what – e.g. Robert Harris’s Fatherland . Plus I guess any book has to be reviewed in terms of what the author was trying to do?

    I read a couple of Roberts’ novels and quite a few of his short stories. His SF is more philosophical than scientific and I found it made a strong first impression, with steadily diminishing returns, mainly because the books all sound tonally alike – usually featuring a cold, disengaged mc, although the reasons for this vary. This, and the dearth of secondary characters meant they reminded me a lot of Camus’s L’Etranger . Or maybe it was just the ones I read? Stone, Land of the Headless and Jack Glass? The short stories were better over all (e.g. Adam Robots) because characterisation wasn’t as much of an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Didn’t know Fatherland, I’m intrigued by its premises. As for reviewing, it’s always tricky – how to factor in author’s intention. I agree one should at least try to acknowledge it, but if something doesn’t work for you, well, it’s your review.

      The same goes for my Roberts review: in the end, I think his main objective is entertainment, not so much Kant, so maybe I’m too harsh for him. But as such entertainment isn’t my thing, and I get annoyed with it, a DNF is what you get. I’ve also discussed The Thing Itself case a bit more in the discussion further down with Ola, I elaborate a bit more on all that there.

      As for the characterization, I thought it was problematic in The Thing Itself, in the sense that they didn’t come across as real people, but as vehicles to showcase Roberts himself, and even though that sentiment is based on just 30 pages, tonality on that front usually becomes clear very quick – I’ve read short stories that conveyed realistic, real characters in under 10 pages.

      I’m afraid I don’t think I’ll ever read more Roberts, which is undoubtely biased and prejudiced, based on a too small sample rate of 30 pages, and also based on some primitive reflex, ganging up with Egan, but so be it. To be honest, I’m kinda glad my TBR is a bit smaller now, without that much effort 🙂


  4. I need to read a novel by him urgently. So far, I’ve read only a couple of short works by him and they were all great.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oof, the intrigues around the book sound more interesting than those within 😉 Seriously, though, I’ll definitely read Egan, though maybe Schild’s Ladder will be better for a start. I am instantly irritated by people who use Kant without understanding him, so big NO for Roberts 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good you put the smiley there, as that first sentence is not really what I wanted to convey 🙂

      As for Roberts, I think he understands him, but he just doesn’t care. To be fair, the book seems generally loved, there are some glowing reviews on Speculiction and Wakizashi’s Teahouse for instance.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Mhm, that doesn’t make it any better, to be fair. If he knows Kant, he should know better than portray his philosophy falsely. I think enough people already don’t know a whit about philosophy; purposefully misleading them further serves nobody except the inflated ego of the author.

        Liked by 1 person

        • From what I can gather, I don’t think he portrays it falsely, there seems to be quite a lot of serious discussion about it in the book, it’s just that in the application for his story he just decided to use A.I. as a magical device to sidestep the perception problem, as he needed something to do so for his story. But by doing so, that part becomes philosophical /intellectual BS, and that tells me the use of Kant in the book is a gimmick for him, not something that he tries to take 100% serious: his own story is more important. Apparently the first chapter is also a play on The Thing by Carpenter/Campbell, and the entire novel might very well have started as a word play with that. Everything I’ve read so far online about Roberts seems to flash “look at me, I’m a serious yet ironic intellectual”. The fact that the characters behave rather unrealistically in the first chapter seems to confirm he is more into entertainment than attempts at unveiling reality.

          The bit about the Fermi paradox is more about misrepresenting Fermi than it is about mirepresenting Kant.

          Liked by 2 people

      • I hear what you are saying about Roberts’ *look how clever I am* style. In other stories I’ve read by him it became annoying. (I DNF’d his short story collection another commentor mentions: “Adam Robots”). Roberts is very good at writing unlikeable characters. But “The Thing Itself” worked for me. I enjoyed the play on The Thing in the opening chapter, and the questions the book asks about who we are, what makes us human, individual–or not. I don’t know much about Kant beyond his name…

        That review is pretty savage though, and has only made me want to read Egan’s book. Too bad, Roberts, your snarky review failed! Egan is on my list and I will get to him eventually. It’s great to hear you have found another author you want to comprehensively explore. I really appreciate these reviews you do that get us all thinking and commenting. Nice one, Bart! 🙂


        • Thanks for the compliment! Also good that you kinda confirmed my hunches about Roberts. I can also see that people not really invested in Kant won’t make a thing of The Thing Itself – and even people that do know Kant, it’s just a matter of tolerance for plot holes basically, and that’s a matter of taste.

          Anyhow, good that it worked for you!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Darn, I need to read more Egan. That synopsis sounds awesome. And the rest of your review makes me think that it is really worth reading. So far I have read Diaspora and Permutation City and both were far ahead of what every other SF writer was doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Atm moment I have Diaspora, Permutation City, Distress and Dispersion on my TBR, and The Clockwork Rocket and Zendigi are on their way. Next time I order something, I’m also adding Perihelion Summer to my basket.

      I have the feeling Egan will be one of the very few authors with a larger oeuvre I plan on reading (almost) everything from – the only other scifi author I want to read everything from is KSR. (In Dutch I plan to do the same with JMH Berckmans, and I’ve already read nearly everything from Reve, aside from a few short stories and the likes.)


  7. Aonghus Fallon

    I’ll definitely be checking out the short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting review – and take on Egan. Roberts and Egan are almost polar opposites in the sf world. Egan extremely serious about the settings of his novels and stories, Roberts plays fast and loose. Egan’s novels feel revised multiple times; Roberts’ feel like homework turned in at the last moment. I get the impression that sf/science is life for Egan; it’s not a game. For Roberts sf seems a side job, something to earn money on top of his professor-ing, etc. And yet another juxtaposition is that Egan’s early novels were more accessible, whereas his later have become scientifically obtuse to the point of rendering him a niche interest. Roberts is the opposite. He began as a niche interest, and has increasingly watered down his novels to the point his name is familiar in mainstream sf.

    I understand your reservations regarding The Thing Itself; I agree Roberts seems to stick his middle finger up and say ‘I can do whatever I want to do’ without truly being concerned about cohesion. But if the opportunity arises, have a go at Salt, Gradisil or New Model Army. They are not the greatest sf works ever written but at least show Roberts putting effort into his homework a couple days before it was due. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s very illuminating, hadn’t thought about them as opposites – as Roberts picked such a serious subject like Kant – but you are very right of course.

      It seems as story almost seems secondary in Orthogonal and Dichronauts, to the point I think I won’t like Dichronauts, but I do have the feeling Egan’s most recent novellas veer away a bit from the hardcore science/math again – I haven’t read them, I could be wrong.

      As for those Roberts titles, I keep a mental note should I come across them in the second hand bin, thanks.


      • Warwick Stubbs

        With Dichronauts I had trouble imagining the protagonists, but they were still identifiable as “human” (having human traits) thus making them relatable; however, the attempt at story telling did not go so well and maybe that had to do with how hard the world is for us (me) to imagine, and Egan not having a better sense of language to convey that. In the end I did not finish Dichronauts. The overall concept was great though!

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Aonghus Fallon

    That’s a pretty accurate appraisal of Roberts!


  10. Aonghus Fallon

    The ‘why’ is still kind of interesting though, as Roberts seems to be acting against his own best interests. His pursuit of broader recognition has made him produce more work – I guess in the hopes that something will take off – which in turn has made him more slapdash, which in turn has worked against the likelihood of him ever succeeding.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Aonghus Fallon

    True! I think maybe the difference is that Robert is a niche author trying to be a more popular one? A strategy that was doomed from the start? Whereas Reynolds – who admittedly I haven’t read – seems to be more mainstream.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, that´s a difference. Not sure if such a strategy is doomed from the start. Depends on the quality/marketing I guess. But indeed, much harder to market.

      I liked House of Sun and the Revelation Space trilogy a lot, all else is rubbish. But I did read those in the beginning of my exploration of SF, so not sure how I would judge them now.


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