Roundtable on Greg Egan

Karen Burnham

That brings me to my next point–Egan’s work over the last two decades or so is fairly wide ranging, even though the publication of Schild’s Ladder, Incandescence, and Clockwork Rocket has currently placed his reputation firmly in the hard-math-and-physics-based-sf box. What do you see as his strongest themes–the ones that will potentially make his work more durable over the years? (‘Durable’ may not be the word I want–I mean worth reading even years after initial publication.)

Paul Graham Raven

Egan (to me) is sf’s most serious theorist of trans- and posthumanism; he’s interested in how what we think of as individual identities will cope with things like permanent physical disembodiment (or re-embodiment), massive (and possibly peripatetic) lifespans, the increasing permeability of the membrane between the physical and the digital, and so on. Which isn’t to say other writers don’t deal with these same topics, of course, but Egan has the required hyperfocus of interest in the deep questions to make his stories start pushing the reader’s philosophy buttons, too. It’s a massive oversimplification, but I think the comparison I’m trying to make is this: most writers of posthuman sf ask questions like “how might this happen, and what would it be like to experience it?”; Egan is asking “what does this mean, and what does human mean?” This is why I’m always a bit baffled when people say they find Egan’s fiction too “gosh-wow”; to me, he’s gone way beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” and out the other side… he takes his conceits and novums incredibly seriously, and I think it’s that almost dead-pan approach to the science of sf that marks him out as truly unique.

Gardner Dozois

He’s done some of the most interesting speculative cosmology I’ve ever seen in the field.  In “Wang’s Carpets,” he (helped by Charlie Stross in his Accelerando stories; Stross and Egan seem to always be linked together in my mind) reinvented the space-travel story, and the alien-contact story.  In “Learning to Be Me” he questioned what it really meant to be human, and in “Reasons to be Cheerful,” he reevaluated our thinking about “human nature.”  He may have done some of his most inventive cosmological thinking in “Dust,” which may read a bit slowly for some readers (we got complaints about that), but which investigates the nature of reality itself and then envisions how the universe REALLY operates in a unique way that even Phil Dick didn’t get around to.

Egan has certainly been one of the most significant SF writers of the last twenty years, if not the MOST significant, not only because he’s bursting with new ideas and new perspectives, but because he investigates them in a way that illuminates the complexity of his human characters, and because he often squints at big issues from a moral perspective wholly different from the way they’re usually looked at.

Russell Letson

I never feel comfortable predicting what the longitudinal audience is going to find sympathetic  or interesting or compelling, which is what I take “durable” to mean. I might, however, observe what it is about his work that reminds me of other work that has stuck with us (“us” meaning that fraction of the population that reads for pleasure and whatever else might lurk in a text) for more than a generation or two.

One thing that Egan does is love stories, or perhaps I should say stories about love: “Appropriate Love,” “Closer,” “The Cutie,” “The Hundred-Light-Year Diary,” and a couple of the strands of Permutation City. Some of these deconstruct emotional attachment, but what I get from them is that even when one field-strips love and lays out its neurochemical components, there remains something  primal and unaccounted-for by a mere naming of parts. It is love that drives much of Teranesia and Zendegi, and even the stories about the far side of the post-human divide are filled with pair-bonded characters. I’m willing to defend the proposition that the ruling passion of Egan’s work-as-a-whole is curiosity (rather a small word for what I sense in him), but running across that, at some angle I’m not prepared to measure, is an awareness of other animating forces that do not reduce to something else.

Karen Burnham

That’s interesting–I formed the impression that Egan was rather more cynical than most authors on the question of relationships. Permutation City and Distress both feature early break-ups, “The Hundred Light-Year Diary” ends with a hollow sham of a relationship, in “The Cutie” the protagonist decides to go the solo parenting route partly because he can’t find a stable long-term partnership… even in “Closer” the pair realize that having achieved true understanding of each other, they can no longer be together. Actually, I rather appreciate that cynicism from Egan, since it seems a rather refreshing counterbalance to the more typical hero-wins-the-day-and-gets-the-girl type of romantic plotting.

Russell Letson

Note that I did specify “stories about love,” partly because that is a superset of what we usually mean by “love stories,” and partly because that term points to a deeper strain of radical analysis that runs through all of his work–something like what the post-modernists or theorists (or whatever has been going on in literary studies since the 1970s) call deconstruction, and Egan subjects just about everything that matters to that deeply rationalist-materialist kind of analysis. The recognition that  “love” consists of elements that are not “spiritual” (a word I suspect makes Egan spit) is at the heart of, say, “Appropriate Love”–which does not mean that the experience itself evaporates under scrutiny. I haven’t reread Permutation City since reviewing it in ’94, but I recall (thanks to my review files) that the trajectories of Peer and Durham seem to suggest that there is another side to the picture of relationships implied by, say, “The Cutie.” I’m working myself up to dealing with the implications of that and with what I think is the other primal driver in Egan’s work, which I inadequately tag “curiosity.”

Kathleen Ann Goonan

Russell has said everything I would like to say in much more depth and with much more knowledge.  His observation about the love stories inherent in most of his work surprised me in the way that true things often do, as Egan usually seems to me to be a dry sort of writer–but I thought, yes!  In Zendegi, for instance, all narrative threads lead, finally, to the love of a father for his son, which Egan elegantly entwines with the possibility/probablility of conscious artificial beings who might painfully become aware of their own limits.  This is something we humans deal with all the time, but Egan makes it seem poignant because the being is artificial–wholly created by humans.  He is able to pack a lot of information into a scene, and sets everything up with skill and a crystalline omniscience that many writers do not employ–an omniscience that reminds me of Elmore Leonard without the irony.

In “Wang’s Carpets,” Egan packs eons into a love story in which he searches the very limits of our humanity–our potential, if able to unfold endlessly into time–and plays out two possible evolutions of at-odds philosophies with marvelous intensity.  “Closer” explores the nature of love–or, at least, narcissism, which is arguably quite different.  But it is still about the nature and meaning of relationships with others, and is, like all of his work, science fictional to the core.

8 thoughts on “Roundtable on Greg Egan

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  • March 5, 2012 at 6:46 am

    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.

  • March 5, 2012 at 11:15 am

    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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  • March 6, 2012 at 4:10 am

    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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