Roundtable on Greg Egan
Welcome to another single-author focused edition of the Locus Roundtable. This time Greg Egan is in the spotlight, as I egregiously abuse my position by wrangling some very kind individuals into talking about my personal current obsession. Participating in this discussion are Gardner Dozois, whose early championing of Egan’s short fiction helped to make him one of the more influential sf authors of the 1990s; Kathleen Ann Goonan, author of the Nanotech Quartet of stories as well as In War Times and This Shared Dream; Russell Letson, long-time reviewer for Locus; and Paul Graham Raven, owner of Futurismic and short story author.
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I’d like to start by asking how you first encountered Egan’s writing–either short fiction or novels.
Kathleen Ann Goonan
I first heard of Greg Egan at a Readercon in the early nineties. I was in a writer’s group called the Vicious Circle, which included (at that time) Ted White, Steve Brown, Dave Bishoff, and several other writers. I’d written a few reviews for Steve’s Science Fiction Eye, including a review of Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary.
At Readercon, Steve told me he was very excited about Quarantine by a new author, Greg Egan. He asked me to review it. If you know Steve, you know how passionate he can be about writers and writing, and that went double for Egan. I don’t recall whether he gave me a manuscript or an actual book, but after reading it, I was completely hooked and wrote this review. I subsequently reviewed Permutation City for SF Eye.
I’ve always been interested in philosophy. In college, I took more philosophy classes than English classes, and discovered shortly before graduation that I more than qualified for a degree in Philosophy; I lacked only one intro class to seal the deal in the eyes of Virginia Tech. But I was in a hurry to graduate and didn’t want to delay another quarter just for that. A degree in philosophy seemed even less useful than a degree in English, and I was eager to move on to my master’s course at the Washington Montessori Institute so that I could begin to earn a living.
When I read Egan, I was fascinated by the way he transmuted all of the philosophical issues that so engaged me into fiction.
That was my introduction to Greg Egan’s work.
My first encounters with Egan came via his short work, starting in 1991 with two stories in the eighth Dozois Year’s Best anthologies: “Learning to Be Me” and “The Caress.” I compared him to Silverberg (the former) and Dick (the latter). Gardner included Egan stories in the 1993, 1994, and 1995 volumes–“Dust,” “Chaff,” and “Cocoon.” What appealed to me in these was that he combined intense philosophical speculation about identity and the nature of personhood with (in the latter two) PI/thriller plot machineries.
Quarantine, Permutation City, and Distress showed up in quick succession (in the US market anyway)–I reviewed them over a fourteen-month stretch. I found in all three the same qualities and topics that appealed to me in the short work, cranked up by the widening of scope that the novel permits–if the stories are intense, the novels are relentless. Permutation City in particular is true to its title, pursuing various implications of its initial givens and questions about the nature of identity or personhood, right out to where the reader almost wants to cry “Enough!” Except the ride has been so riveting that, like a kid who is been tossed and spun by a grown-up, Enough! turns into Again!
Paul Graham Raven
I was late to Egan, too, as with most things; his was a name that cropped up quite often as a comparison touchstone in Interzone when I first started getting it (2003 or so?), and it seemed that everyone who was writing the stuff I was most interested in at the time was working in a similar “big ideas” sphere. So when I found a paperback of Diaspora in the local second-hand book shop, I knew the name could be trusted… took it home, and had the top of my head wrenched clean off! That little novel goes way beyond what’s supposed to be possible (or readable!) with non/post-human characters, and at the time I was very much interested in who was pushing the boundaries in sf, and how far they could be pushed. Well, Egan was clearly pushing them, and it didn’t look like he was done pushing, either, so I’ve done what I could to keep listening ever since…
I was in a similar situation to Paul. I had just started reading Locus in 2002 when Schild’s Ladder came out. Gary and Russell’s reviews sold me on the book, and when I read it I ran out and reviewed it myself. (Not, unfortunately, my best written review ever. Rather more enthusiasm than skill at that point.) I’d never read anything like it–I appreciated both the mind-blowing hard sf, the post-human future, and the satirical bits.
Since then I’ve gone on to read most of his work. For a long time Diaspora was my favorite, and nowadays I can’t say which is my favorite between Distress and Diaspora. However it seems like Permutation City may be the book that has the most longevity–I see it referenced over time more than the others. Time will tell.
Kathleen Ann Goonan
I had a similar reaction. I continue to be amazed by how good Egan is at leading me, at least, among trails and over bridges that seem plausible, with fascinating views along the way, until I arrive at the always-stunning result of the edifice of reason I’ve been climbing and find myself just blown away.
I think that Zendegi, which I had my students read for the science fiction novel class I taught last fall, is one of the least radical of Egan’s work (at least it seemed so to me). I’m pretty sure that all the students were intimately aware of all of the issues raised in the novel, including the question of what makes us human, definitions of consciousness, and whether a conscious AI might be plausible in the near-future. Some good papers, discussions, and exam answers emerged.
I first noticed Greg Egan’s work in Interzone, where he’d published a couple of stories such as “Scatter My Ashes” that I suppose would have to be called technohorror. When he first started sending stories to me at Asimov’s–and, as I recall, he sent a number at once–there were both SF stories and horror stories in the batch; I encouraged him to send more SF, and indicated that I wasn’t particularly interested in the horror. His early stories also tended to be short and sketchy–he’s have a great new idea in them, but wouldn’t do much with it fictionally (the early stories of Charles Stross were similar); all they would really have going for them was the idea. Later, whether because of my encouraging him in that direction, or just because of his natural evolution as a writer that would have happened anyway, he began adding plots, human problems, evocative writing, and increasingly complex human characters (same with Stross). For me, one of his best stories is “Oceanic,” which balances all the elements in a very successful way, the human characterization and the lyricism as well as the scientific speculation–it reminded me strongly of a harder-edged Le Guin, in fact, which you couldn’t have said about his early SF stories like “The Caress,” which were much more post-cyberpunkish.
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8 thoughts on “Roundtable on Greg Egan”
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I agree with much that’s said here.
Egan’s Clockwork Rocket shows another aspect beyond the posthuman — a radically different universe based on new physical laws. This seems a way of looking at the implications of the multiverse ideas infesting and I think expressing the problems of theoretical physics and cosmology: a poverty of richness, no way to choose.
So many retreat into a rather weird idea (in my view) that everything that emerges from our equations must somehow exist in another space-time. To me this expresses the frustrations of our collision with mathematical difficulty and how to carry out the grand determinist agenda of modern science: find a unique, predictive theory of Everything.
So he may be venturing into lands new and vital, beyond the posthuman horizon.
Very enjoyable discussion. My feeling lately (and I admit I’m a few books behind) is that Egan has become a bit undervalued in the field. It’s good to see some renewed enthusiasm for his work. I like Kathleen’s closing observation: “so pure it rings like a crystal”. Very true, I think.
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Interesting discussion, and good to see Egan’s work being discussed by people who don’t think there’s “too much science”. I have to agree that philosophy, morals and love are central themes, but the engine is always the scientific “what if?” (and also “come and see”). Egan seems to provide an answer to anyone who thinks science is robbing us of the magic and poetry provided by myth and religion: don’t underestimate how strange and beautiful is the universe revealed by physics. No mention of Clockwork Rocket – if you haven’t read it yet, read it soon because the author is at the height of his powers and pushing those boundaries even further.
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