If literature is the process of holding an idea up to the light so one can explore its facets, then Greg Egan is one of the most literary of science fiction authors. That's not to say his work is obscure or inaccessible - although it's not as well known as it deserves to be, and he regularly deals in mind-stretching concepts from the edges of physics and mathematics.
But Egan has the gift of taking an idea (and such ideas!) and working rigorously and plausibly through the ramifications, while marrying it to plot, characters and writing that draws the reader in. His ideas are very much from the hard-SF end of the spectrum, but balanced by a strong moral sense that many authors lack.
So it was with some anticipation and no small expectations that I approached his latest collection, Crystal Nights. The nine stories within are up to Egan's usual standards. This is a thoughtful collection and the moral dimension is more prominent than in previous collections.
Lost Continent is barely a sci-fi story at all, using the device of a time-gate to explore the plight of refugees from a totalitarian society, and the impact they have on their host country.
Title story Crystal Nights revisits an undeveloped theme from his earlier novel Permutation City. The idea that an evolutionary approach may be the only practical way to generate artificial intelligence is not new, but this is the first story I have seen that tries to tackle a critical issue: that evolution involves killing off unpromising specimens to allow the more promising ones to develop. Do we have the right to end the existence of potentially sentient beings? And however we answer that question, how would the AIs feel about it if they found out? Crystal Nights offers answers to this question, almost becoming a dark farce as the human researchers try to minimise the damage of their approach.
Steve Fever also touches on a familiar premise, nanotechnology out of control, but applies a lighter touch than usual as dotty nanobots attempt to recreate their dead creator.
TAP posits a brain implant that changes the way language works. In a classic Egan setup, a prominent user of TAP has died, and the protagonist is hired to find out whether it was murder. I won't spoil the resolution of the story, but as with the best Egan stories it sets out from an interesting premise and turns sharply left into something much bigger.
Induction paints a plausible story of how interplanetary exploration might actually happen, given the vastness of space.
Singleton returns to a favourite Egan theme, the philosophical implications of quantum theory. In his 1992 novel Quarantine, he explored the Copenhagen interpretation with its apparently privileged role of the observer in creating the world we see. Here, he looks at the many worlds hypothesis and whether it might be better to know you are living just one life as opposed to an infinite number, each with different outcomes.
Oracle, a sort-of sequel to Singleton, explores the implications of the many worlds hypothesis further through an alternative history in which a thinly veiled Alan Turing and CS Lewis debate whether a machine can think.
Border Guards explores the meaning of friendship and death in a galaxy-spanning society where death has been conquered.
Hot Rock is another story set in the Amalgam universe introduced in Incandescent and Dark Integers, with two travellers exploring a sunless (but curiously warm) planet wandering between the stars.
The ideas and the writing are up to Egan's usual high standard, and for all the seriousness of the themes there is a deftness of touch that makes for compelling reading. But it isn't quite a five-star book, and it's hard to pin down why. Egan deals with difficult intellectual concepts and it's often hard to remember the details for more than a little while after reading, but his best work leaves you with a striking imagery that remains long after the rest of the dream has faded. The stories here don't have that; they fade too easily. I had to skim back through the book to write this review; an enjoyable task, but some of the ideas here deserve better.
Crystal Nights, for instance, treads some of the same ground as Ian MacDonald's River of Gods, but MacDonald evokes his story in such a way that the key scenes stick with you. Of course, MacDonald's novel is several times the length of Egan's entire collection, but perhaps that's the key. The short story format works well for ideas that are easily encapsulated or where you want to illuminate an underappreciated facet of a bigger whole, but the concepts in Crystal Nights are too big for that. I would love to see a full-length novel version of TAP, Crystal Nights or Singleton - or at least a collection of short stories on the same theme.
Nevertheless, this collection is intelligent, thought-provoking and enjoyable to read. Recommended.