Russell Letson Reviews Sleep and the Soul by Greg Egan

Sleep and the Soul, Greg Egan (Self-published 978-1-922240-47-7 $25.00 978-1-922240-45-3, hc) May 2023. Cover by Greg Egan.

Greg Egan’s Sleep and the Soul collects his very newest short-form work: nine stories originally published between 2019 and 2022, plus one that is, as of this writ­ing, not even officially out yet. This is the seventh collection of Egan’s short work I have reviewed over nearly three decades, and I notice (again) how he demonstrates one of the fundamental generating mechanisms of science fiction: what Samuel Delany (and then Joanna Russ) called ‘‘subjunctivity,’’ the posing and elaborating of the conjectural what-ifs that generate enabling devices and story possibilities – the raw materials of ‘‘worldbuilding.’’

For example, what if there were a drug that let you get some sleep while still doing ordinary tasks – what if you could sleepwalk through work or exercise, functional but not normally conscious? In ‘‘Night Running,’’ a frazzled, exhausted junior programmer takes Fibrofilamide, off-label, to find some relief from his sleep deprivation. Luke is cautious and systematic about using the drug and finds that he is able to squeeze in more than a day’s worth of activity – including long runs – and still get enough sleep, but when he tries to return to normality, his somnabulistic ‘‘Fibrofilamide side’’ proves hard to stop, and it evades increasingly elaborate attempts to limit it – he’s as clever and determined asleep as awake. The solution to the problem is characteristically Eganian.

Or, speaking of sleep, what if someone devised a way to mess with diurnal cycles and distributed it in a way that reset everyone’s rhythms – and thus their entire lives – and disrupted society at large. That is the device that enables ‘‘Zeitgeber,’’ and what the story examines is not so much the precise neurological mechanism as the personal, domestic, social, and economic effects of some­thing as simple as throwing sleep schedules out of phase. Again, the story turns on vivid depictions of anxieties and dislocations and the determined efforts of individuals and groups to work around or through them.

Not all disruptions have material, explainable causes – some are mysterious, nearly-metafic­tional, and perhaps metaphysical. In ‘‘Solidity,’’ almost anything unobserved, from the color of one’s underwear to the members of one’s family, is subject to change, which isolates everyone in their own, ever-shifting reality. The only way to preserve any connection is to keep watch with and on others – and never look away, lest when you look back, your companion will be someone similar but not the same. The condition is lawful – that is, its behavior can be mapped and its limits established – but no cause is given. The effects of isolation are nightmarish, but as in Perihelion Summer and Phoresis, people come together to keep the social machineries operational. For a while, at least, people cope by devising a sharing/barter economy similar to the one depicted at the end of The Book of All Skies.

Another familiar Egan pattern is the hard-SF procedural built on ingenious and unlikely en gineering efforts. ‘‘Light Up the Clouds’’ depicts a strange environment (floating forests in the atmosphere of a gas giant) and an ambitious and seemingly impossible extremely low-tech engineering project: to achieve suborbital flight via catapult-launched glider. It’s a close cousin of the tower- and bridge-building of Phoresis and The Book of All Skies, including the recurring motifs of cooperative effort, relentless ingenuity, and patience.

The ingenious escape in ‘‘This Is Not the Way Home’’ is from the Earth’s own moon, but without a rocket-powered spacecraft. A sudden and un­explained radio silence from the Earth, followed by the emergency evacuation of a lunar station’s personnel, leaves behind one official researcher and a couple who won a lottery to spend their honeymoon on the moon. Eventually, the only survivors are Aisha and her moon-born infant daughter, and their rocketless voyage is given a detailed description.

‘‘After Zero’’ is another engineering procedural, in which the goal is to deploy a kind of sunshield at a Lagrange point, but with added problems in the form of wrangling the business-organizing end of things – a kind of The Man Who Sold the Moon scenario, extending over decades. One challenge is competing for popular support and crowdfund­ing – not only promoting the solution but having to sell it against competing (even cockamamie) rival projects such as The Repurposed World’s scheme to develop

a device that they claimed could be used to launch four brave chrononauts back in time – armed with suitable knowledge, and the necessary cultural and linguistic skills, to send Earth’s history swerving away from the present, searing disaster toward a far happier outcome.

Not all the stories’ problems are so dire. In ‘‘Dream Factory,’’ a broke, overworked, sleep-deprived computer-science student (is this another Egan motif?) looks for a way to free his foolish roommates’ cat from the behavior-shaping electrodes-and-collar product that turns Pawpaw into a programmable fur puppet.

Domesticated really means domesticated now; he’s not some half-neotenous would-be jaguar who just tolerates us for the sake of an easy life. He’s our widdul puddy cat, and if we want to dress him up as Santa and pimp him out on YouTube, he’ll have no choice but to love every minute of it.

It’s a tour through a cat’s interior life, the power of ‘‘petfluencers,’’ and a canny and rewarding hacking project.

If Egan were not dedicated to SF, he could be a fine deviser of our-world thrillers and crime procedurals. ‘‘You and Whose Army?’’ starts out as a kind of detective story – a search for a missing brother who has suddenly dropped out of sight – but it turns to questions of identity and authenticity. The missing brother is one of a set of identical triplets who also share much of their experiences via a neural internet connection, and part of the solution is rooted in questions of what it takes or means to be one’s own person.

‘‘Crisis Actors’’ has a kind of inside-out intrigue plot, with a dedicated true (un)believer employing all manner of security measures as he infiltrates a climate-crisis rescue organization with a view to undermining it by exposing how ‘‘catastrophists [are] lying to the world, faking deaths to milk people’s emotions.’’ The tight point of view im­merses us in Carl’s actions as he participates in a rescue operation in the aftermath of a cyclone while believing the destruction and injuries he sees to be somehow faked. And when he fails to find evidence of fakery, that failure only confirms his delusions.

‘‘Sleep and the Soul’’ is set in an alternate 19th-century America in which large parts of the populace hold the odd theological belief that the soul leaves the body during, say, a coma or injury-induced unconsciousness. So they bury the body they believe now lacks a soul. Jesse Sloss gets injured on the job, wakes up buried alive, and digs his way out, which is only the beginning of his troubles. Now there are many who consider him demon-possessed, and some of those are quite willing to put him back underground by force. That theological tenet is more than a justification for premature burial or mob violence – it has im­plications for matters from the use of anaesthesia to justifications for slavery, and the contortions it causes in its holders’ belief systems (and actions) echo Carl’s delusions in ‘‘Crisis Actors.’’ It is one the strangest of Egan’s pursuits of questions of the continuity of personality and identity.

Once again I am struck by how consistent Egan has been in his ethical and social concerns; by his relentless pursuit of philosophical questions; by the sometimes daunting sophistication of his mathematical, topological, and cosmological speculations; and by the surprising ways he turns and re-turns his imagination to those questions. Even after seven volumes of short work (and more than a dozen novels and novellas) these variations on themes never get old.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the March 2023 issue of Locus.

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2 thoughts on “Russell Letson Reviews Sleep and the Soul by Greg Egan

  • May 1, 2023 at 4:18 am

    Greg’s work is often insightful, entertaining and worth a read. It is always thought-provoking and exercises the mind in a way that Arthur C Clarke would have called the only truly mind-expanding drug.


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