Incandescence
by Greg Egan
Gollancz, 2008, Paperback, 272pp, 12.99
ISBN 978 0 575 08163 5
See also my review of Schild's Ladder This review first appeared in VECTOR
2008 is fast becoming quite a singular year for science fiction: first a new Culture novel, then a sighting of the lesser-spotted Egan – all we need now is a new Neal Stephenson and I'll be in sf heaven.  Let's be honest, though, Greg Egan's novels are never going to be made into blockbusters by Hollywood.  He's the quantum mechanics of science fiction – to paraphrase Richard Feynmann, if you've read an Egan novel and think you understand it then you probably haven't understood it.

I enjoy Egan's novels.  I've been a fan since I was first blown away by Permutation City many years ago, but my understanding of them is akin to a little mouse nibbling at the edges to get a decent piece of the Egan intellectual cheese - a mere fraction of the whole.

Incandescence gave me less of that lovely cheese than I've come to expect.
There are two arcs to the story: in the first we follow Rakesh, who lives in a fairly run-of-the-mill million-years-hence utopian galactic community.  With no preamble whatsoever he's approached by a being claiming to have evidence of a possible lost ancestral lifeform: some DNA found on a meteor near the galactic centre. This is a part of the galaxy largely closed to Rakesh's civilisation – the Amalgam.  It's inhabited by the aptly named Aloof, of which next to nothing is known.  Lahl, the being with the evidence, claims she was given it by the Aloof and is offering it to Rakesh since he is also descended from DNA-based lifeforms.  Rakesh, for his part, is bored with his existence in a galaxy that has been excruciatingly mapped, catalogued, studied and civilised; he yearns for adventure.

The second arc is set inside a closed world called the Splinter inhabited by an intelligent but undemanding race of transparent centipedes.  Roi, a farm worker, is content with her lot in life until she meets a strange person called Zak.  Zak is strange because of the questions he asks - and some of the answers he suggests – about the basics of life in the Splinter.  As she gets to know Zak she becomes infused and enthused with his questions and joins him on a quest to understand where the Splinter came from, what it is, how it works and, vitally, where it is going.

Incandescence feels like YA novel initially because the characters are portrayed in broad brush strokes, and both situations are quickly set up to allow Egan to get on with what he really wants to do, which is write the tale of an astronomical-mathematical Renaissance amongst intelligent, but non-human, aliens.  I didn't resent the quickness of the setup because it's the ideas we want to get to in an Egan novel and not the emotional anxieties of its characters, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a YA book.

It's questionable how interesting a renaissance such as this can ever be to an Arts-educated person like myself, particularly since it replaces the usual gosh-wow-how-far-can-he-go-with-this? extreme speculation that Egan is justifiably famous for.  I could appreciate, I think, what was being done here: we're being shown how a society can use the scientific method to bootstrap itself from ignorance to knowledge, but without the background to properly follow this bootstrapping Incandescence seemed liable to descend into pedantry, losing me completely for whole pages at a time as characters discussed geometry and nothing else (theoretical geometry at that!).

Describing geometry solely via text is a difficult task, one that here would have been helped along significantly by the inclusion of quite a few diagrams.

Incandescence is never actually boring; rather, the worst I can say is that it feels a bit, well, tame.  For all the talk of million-year timespans, neutron stars and galactic travel, this is Egan's most limited and claustrophobic novel to date.
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