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.