Greg Egan doesn't write many books just for me. In fact, Greg Egan doesn't write many books at all, anymore. Incandescence, however, changes all of that.
Greg Egan, as some of you youngsters may not recall, was one of the Hot New Writers back in the mid-to-late Nineties, and over into the first year or two of the new millennium, but somewhere around 2002 he went off the grid. A prolific source of gripping science fiction that blended great stories, hard science, and important ethical questions, Egan disappeared overnight. No more stories; no more novels; no news.
He had always been something of an enigma. We knew he was Australian. We knew he shunned conventions. We knew he was a computer programmer. Then we knew he disappeared.
"He's gone into politics," some said, based on evidence that he's active in political rights for those seeking asylum in Australia, but six years later, Greg Egan is back with a new novel and more in the works.
Unfortunately, Egan's reintroduction to civilization is unlikely to earn him the kinds of accolades his earlier works did. Incandescence has a fairly limited potential audience. Rarely does one finish a novel with a wistful sigh, look up into the shadows, and say: "You know, that would have been a lot more readable if only there had been more math in the book."
Incandescence intertwines two narrative threads. The primary plot involves a race of aliens just discovering (or rediscovering) a scientific understanding of the universe. And their universe is intriguing: gravity doesn't follow any pattern familiar to earth-dwellers.
On John Scalzi's blog, Whatever, Egan explained that the book began as a thought experiment. Egan wondered under what circumstances general relativity "could be discovered by a pre-industrial civilization with no steam engines, no electric lights, no radio transmitters, and absolutely no tradition of astronomy."
In our world, general relativity is a difficult concept used to explain edge cases of physics inconceivably remote from our every-day experience. But here's where Science Fiction comes to the rescue: Egan imagines a race evolving in an extreme environment where those edge cases are the day-to-day reality.
As such, Incandescence is a marvelous book for physics professors and mathematicians everywhere. Egan lays down plenty of clues in the beginning for the curious scientist to try to reverse-engineer the thought experiment. Then, as we follow the first glimmerings of science among this alien race, we can follow the sequence of experiments and translate alien explanations for events into our own model of the world to enjoy their various triumphs, failures, and dead-ends as they grow into an understanding of the universe.
However, these are not trivial epiphanies, and Egan is going to lose much of the general readership along the way. Pages and pages are devoted to the description of experiments and the analysis of results by characters who are using a fictional language of space to understand their observations and draw their conclusions. The exploration of their ideas, some good and some plausible but erroneous is fascinating, but it takes extremely careful reading to enjoy. On many occasions during my reading I had to go back and re-read a passage for a third or fourth time, reminding myself what various alien words would translate to. These were the occasions when I began to wish that Egan had just invented a new symbolic mathematics, because even unfamiliar, short lines of equations, a handy key of variables and constants would have been far simpler to digest than long narrative explanations, often filled with roundabouts, re-explanations, and corrections of false steps.
Now, if this had been the only plot line in the book, the whole thing might have been more successful. Egan, however, attempted to up the tension by bringing in our own enormously advanced descendants. Millions of years in the future, humanity and most of the other species of the known galaxy have established a god-like omnipresence throughout most of the habitable worlds. There is truly nothing new under the sun for these folks, until a mysterious traveler comes asking for "a child of DNA."
This plot thread pursues two mysteries: the quest for what the reader knows to be an existent race, lost to the galaxy because of their extreme location, and also the mystery of the buffer species that has further cut off this race, a race that may be even more advanced than our own nearly infinitely advanced future race.
In theory, a good mystery should have taken this book to the next level, but the second thread turns out to be a bit of a dud. There's little in the way of actual science to hold the scientist's attention, and there's certainly not enough in the way of mystery, character interest, or other plot motion to hold anyone else's attention. The second mystery is left almost completely untouched, and the first mystery is not resolved satisfactorily.
Egan understands how to construct a compelling story. There is real pressure on his characters to achieve the understanding of the universe in time to avert catastrophe. He gives us real risk, time pressure, and a couple of characters to really care about: Zak and Roi.
But the emotional power of Incandescence never gets off the ground. These aliens have enough personality to draw us in, but Egan doesn't handle their character arc gracefully. If anything, I would say there's too much reality and not enough fiction in this story of alien scientists. Zak's story is convincing, but disappointing. Roi never quite connects with us; her personality becomes subsumed by the intellectual exercise. The lesser characters never achieve personality at all. Fair enough: they are aliens. What should I expect?
While I can enjoy a novel-length thought experiment about an alternate path to the discovery of universal truths about the nature of the universe, I don't think a great many readers will join me in that pleasure. And among those who do, I fear that most will be disappointed by those parts of the book that try to elevate the work to the level of story. My fear, then, is that the absolutely riveting mathematics/physics thought experiment at the heart of this book will truly be of interest only to myself.
While I think there are worse fates than having Greg Egan write books only for me, I'm not so sure Greg Egan would agree.