PERIHELION SUMMER – Greg Egan (2019)

Perhihelion Summer Greg EganIf you think Greg Egan isn’t to your liking – too dense, too much math, too much science – Perihelion Summer is the title for you. With hardly any science inside, this novella shows yet another side of Australia’s most reclusive science fiction author.

While it may have a difficult world in the title, the fact that Tor published it is an indication of its accessibility. Length is another argument to give it a chance: its 214 pages offer a short, smooth, engaging read. While every online bookstore or professional review I’ve consulted seems to consider this a novel, Egan himself calls it a novella on his own website. That classification does matter, as I’ll explain below.

So what’s this little gem about?

Well – climate change, but not as you know it. None of the man-made stuff of Termination Shock or The Ministry for the Future, but change brought about by Taraxippus – a black hole one-tenth the mass of the sun that passes through our solar system.

Even though the origin of the problem in the story is formally much more in line with Ballard’s classic The Drowned World, it is exactly through the science fictional lens of a cosmic disaster that Egan manages to say a lot about man-made climate change nonetheless. His choice allows him to speed things up, and because of that, tell a more powerful story.

To say much more would spoil things. It is such a short book that it would be a shame if you go in knowing too much – I advise against reading the Kirkus review or the ones on SFFWorld or Locus. Egan expertly manages to surprise his readers, and while you have a few inklings where the story will go, it takes a few twists and turns that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. This very much a page-turner, with fairly diverse parts –  a prepper tale, something akin an action thriller, an apocalyptic real-world-horror chapter, a hard SF description of a cosmic accident, …

I can say this about the content though: the book centers on Matt Fleming and a few of his friends, who prepared for the calamities brought by the black hole by building a self-sustainable seagoing vessel that functions as a habitat too. The gravity of the black hole will have an effect on sea levels, is their thinking. The book is set in and around Australia, and that focus on the southern hemisphere provides a welcome change of scenery from most others speculative stories.

Some negative reviews I’ve read expected more, claiming the book doesn’t offer much else than a sketch. While I can understand this criticism, I can’t agree with it. It all depends on the mindset with which you flip the first page: if you go in expecting a full-fledged novel, you might be disappointed, yes, but if you expect a novella, it should cater to all your needs. More so, I liked the fact that Perihelion Summer wasn’t overwritten, providing a focused ride, no fluff, no superfluous detail, no hundreds of pages of backstory, no world building for its own sake. Simply a few powerful vignettes – you could also consider this as a few sequenced short stories.

Tor is to blame, I guess: they should have marketed this clearly as a novella.

The characters are well portrayed given the work’s length. They do what they need to do, and Egan provides depth were needed, without resorting to melodrama or psychoanalysis. The writing is crisp, the message chilling.

Locus’ Russell Letson was very right when he wrote that the story’s conclusion is unexpected and satisfying. “Egan is modeling both an accelerated version of the future we face and a perhaps-as-unlikely kind of response to it – a rational and humane refusal to give up or give in to survivalist power fantasies and magical thinking.”

It is a bleak, truthful book, but not wholly without hope.

Egan opposes “using quotes from authors on book jackets”, as I talked about in my review of Schild’s Ladder. But that was 2002. The laws of the market tend to be brutal, and so Kim Stanley Robinson is quoted, on the back and the front. Whatever Egan’s feelings on the matter, Robinson’s “Bravo” is well-earned.

Considering the fact that it is a novella, Perihelion Summer easily gets the full 5 stars.

 


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, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

35 responses to “PERIHELION SUMMER – Greg Egan (2019)

  1. Well, you’ve sold this to me: novella — sequenced short stories — parable — thriller — literate — what’s not to like?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excactly! I’m already looking forward to your review 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hah! I’ve already spotted enough blog reviews of must-read books recently to keep me going through the whole of 2022!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I know the feeling. And still, this year, I’ve managed to constrain myself a bit. I will do a headcount of my TBR at the end of the year, but my hope is that it has not grown. It might even have shrunken, but I’ll have to count to exactly see how much that is the result of a small purge I did. It will be a close call anyhow, as I imagine there will be a book or 2, 3 underneath various Christmas trees.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hah, sounds very interesting. But I’m interested in anything Egan writes. I’m still working through his short story collection. I had to put it on hold to read the malazan book but I’ll get on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have that too on my TBR. Might give it a bumb, as this convinced me short work might be his strong suit. I also have eyed Zendengi, that will probably be my next Egan.

      Like

    • Btw, are you enjoying the short stories so far?

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      • Yes I am. There are some very good ones in there. It works very well if I read them between other books instead of all of them in one go.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Good to know. Yes that might be the way to go, it’s a fairly big book it seems.

          It’s probably also the only way I’ll ever tackle the collected short stories of Frank Herbert. No idea what to expect of those – I don’t have high hopes I must admit, and the book has been on my TBR for over 7 years.

          And Kolyma Tales by Shalamov too, now that I think of it. I’ve been “reading” that for 5 years. Brilliant though, but something keeps me from pushing through. And then to think I have the second volume as well.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I have books like that as well. Every few years I remember that there is a great Best of Gene Wolfe collection out there that I ought to be reading, but I always skip it again or forget about it again.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Re: Herbert’s short stories
            Best not to expect anything. More than anything, they are thought exercises that develop or question concepts. The Jorj X. McKie stories could be of most interest as they develop their own fictional world that is expanded on in two novels.

            Herbert is so out-of-place alongside other big-name SF authors, which kind of make the short stories unique, whether you like them or not. Because they’re not plot orientated, I had little idea of what they were trying to say as a teenager, so it certainly would be interesting to go back to them 25 years later.

            Liked by 1 person

            • My expectations after reading all that non-Dune Herbert were already pretty low, but it’s good to read your specifics. Maybe better that they are just exercises or ideas, in that way they might have more merit than as full-fledged stories (that might suck as stories).

              As for Jorj X. McKie, I thought The Dosadi Experiment was underdevelopped, too short in fact, and Whipping Star was absurd and cartoonish. But my recollections are vague, I can just say that because I reread my own reviews 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  3. I noticed you had a Currently Reading widget on the side. Is that something that happens automatically, or do you have to manually add the pix, etc?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I´ve seen automatic ones coupled with Goodreads or similar sites, but I like to have more control so this one is manually, add the pic myself. So my reading always starts with finding the best possible pic, or taking one myself if I don´t find one. I then use it for the post later too, so no work lost.
      Finally reading McKillip btw, learned about her first from you. Loving it so far.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I noticed the widget because it was McKillip 😀

        What kind of block is used? My page is pretty busy but no reason to not make it busier!

        Liked by 1 person

        • It´s not a block I think. Or it wasn´t back in the days. It´s just a text widget in which I put picture html. I´ll check tomorrow on my laptop for specifics. But if it´s a block now, it´s in the classic format.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yeah, if it was just a text widget, there’s no block.
            Thanks for looking into that for me.

            Liked by 1 person

            • As far as I can tell, the editor calls it a “Legacy Widget” now, meaning some outdated widget that’s not available anymore in the new block editor. I could convert it to a block if I want, but I’m not going to because why break things that work.

              There is a block called ‘Media & Text’ that would probably do the same I guess.

              In the current Widget list, there is nothing that would do the job it seems.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Thanks.
                This whole “block editor” is straight out of 1984 the book. I don’t know if you have read it or remember, but there is a scene where the propaganda machine tells everyone that due to how well things are going everyone’s chocolate ration has gone up to 8oz. The problem is, they used to get 12oz.

                Anyway, the point is that we keep being told how great the block editor is and how we can do “X, Y and Z”. When we could already do them in the classic editor. Plus, we’ve lost a lot of things in the switch over.

                Sorry about the rant 😦

                Liked by 2 people

              • No problem, I agree. Have yet to read 1984. Great scene you describe, it bumbs that book a few places up.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Been 25 or 30 years since I read that scene, so it might be a bit off 🙂
                But it has stuck with me for all these years….

                Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m among those who always felt a bit intimidated by Egan, so thank you very much for showcasing this: it might be the right fit to… put my feet in these waters for the first time… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Over 200 pages and a novella… we live in times of Behemoths. Sounds very interesting though, and I’ve been reading some shorter forms lately, I’ll order this right away (and read at some point in the future 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Word count would be a better metric, but I don´t have that. There´s quite a lot of white: blank pages in between chapters, larger margins, not a small font. These 200 pages would be 100 or so in the 1960ies pocket format with cramped pages.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Very glad to see you enjoyed this one. I keep meaning to return to Egan, I still have several unread on my shelf and have thoroughly enjoyed those I’ve read. This one sounds very different, though, as I don’t think I could describe any of the others I’ve tried as page-turners. But I like when authors try different things, such as using a passing black hole as the means to discuss climate change. Not something I’d have thought of. But that’s one of the reasons I love reading his work, most of what he writes I might not have thought of, but once I’ve read it I can’t stop thinking about it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • So far what I’ve read of him is very diverse indeed. I’ve read some people online express the idea that he’s not one person, but a collective of authors, but that seems highly unlikely.

      I do think I need to stay away from the purely math/physics books though, like Dichronouts and his latests The Book of All Skies (just published in 2021). They seem to just develop a world based on another set of physical parameters than ours, and story/characters are secondary. I’m still a bit on the fence about the Orthogonal trilogy. Have you read any of those?

      I guess I’ll read all else first, and we’ll see in a decade.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve not read any in the Orthogonal trilogy and it doesn’t look like I own any of those. Looking back it appears I’ve read 4 of his books, those in the Subjective Cosmology trilogy and Diaspora, so nothing from the past decade. Guess it’s time to get reading again, eh? 🙂 I might one day try the other books you mentioned as I do sometimes enjoy pure idea books, but not nearly as much as character or story. So like you, I’m not in any hurry at the moment.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Besides Quarantine, I have yet to read the Subjective Cosmology trilogy, and Diaspora as well. I have them on my TBR though. So many books, and not enough time. So indeed: time to get reading 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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  8. I think the story needed to be told from an outsider’s perspective. Someone who had no scientific or technical training – a civilian type, maybe an outright idiot – who finds themselves on Egan’s floating ark. Have the world be explained indirectly through this rookie’s observations.

    This would help soften the “academic” tone of the story. The heroes are mostly reasonably smart, technically minded, resourceful folk, who too much echo Egan’s own voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting thought, thanks. It would have made a totally different book indeed. Maybe better, could be, but it all depends I guess. Maybe a matter of oranges and apples even.

      I didn’t mind these people as protagonists – maybe because I share an outlook that is more or less similar. It’s an outlook shared by some of KSR’s characters as well. I liked the diversity of the book despite an authorial voice that stays the same more or less throughout.

      I think as it works now, some of the scenes don’t loose any power because of their perspective, on the contrary: the character in search of his family, that would have been different if he had been an idiot, and I could probably relate to it more as is because our shared similarities.

      Also the ending —- SPOILER —- that is resolved without violence, for me was maybe the best part of the book, because it catches you by surprise and shows your conditioning as a reader/viewer of these kind of stories, and it would have worked totally different if the POV character at that time would have been too far away from the average Egan reader – let us suppose he isn’t read by idiots nor people without a scientific mind.

      I hope you did like the book, regardless of your comment, or, at the very least, that my recommendation wasn’t a total waste of your time 🙂

      Like

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