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Incandescence
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on 15 July 2008
Greg Egan is the Martin Gardner of science fiction storytelling, weaving mathematical and physical puzzles into entertaining howdunnits about encounters with novel forms of sentience, usually at vastly smaller scales than ours. Many of his stories, like Incandescence, are set in a post-human galaxy-spanning culture, the Amalgam, based on the idea of consciousness as an algorithm that can run on different hardware as it suits - so interstellar travel, for instance, is a simple matter of flinging your mental template (or a copy of your mind) as data to a far off receiving station where you can be re-embodied or just incorporated into any computational substrate that will let your unique OS run.

At his best (e.g. Schild's Ladder) the reader is often gripped by a plot involving a race against time to comprehend new forms of intelligent life that might be threatening the old through some inadvertent side-effect of their expansionism into the Amalgam's reality-space. At the same time, Egan has an amazing gift for explaining, Flatland fashion, the physics of extreme environments; working through the consequences of Planck scale realities or multi-dimensional spaces to render them almost as intuitively as we accept the everyday physics of our world.

In Incandescence, the story alternates between two investigators from the Amalgam trying to comprehend the possibly tragic fate of just such a new form of sentience and the struggle of that life form to comprehend its environment before the volatile conditions which exist in the star-packed inner core of our galaxy makes them extinct.

Although entertaining - I found myself rooting for the little sextupeds turning themselves on to the joys of physics - perhaps the maths that Egan describes here -- of huge gravitational forces and plasma dynamics -- aren't quite as exotic as in his other books. One half of the chapters are really just an exercise in the re-invention of Newton's Laws, Keplerian orbits, the differential calculus, special and general relativity and so on, familiar I suspect to any reader with a New Scientist-level physics education. Something is missing from the story as pure sci-fi because the reader isn't so much being stimulated by new physical concepts as being forced to try to remember the way, say, physicists solved the problem of orbits or the curvature of spacetime, etc.

It was tempting to see this tale as an allegory of a civilization at threat of extinction from vast environmental change (i.e. global warming) but even that is spoiled by a deus ex machina -- Egan's six-footed Einstein's are universally prone to collaboration and consensus! The only threat they face is lack of time, not their own foibles as a species.

Still, Incandescence is a wonderful antidote to space opera and many of Egan's descriptions of physics experiments inside extreme gravity wells are ingenious and elegant. Buy this book if you enjoy mental exercise and mathematical puzzles, but only if your scientific education is pre-college. Otherwise it might just feel like a history lesson.
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on 6 June 2008
Egan's first novel for 6 years is set in a very far future where an evolved humanity has spread out to inhabit the galaxy's spiral arms, where lifespans are measured in millennia and travel is possible almost anywhere in the galaxy. The exception is the central galactic bulge which is inhabited by the aptly named Aloof, who exist in splendid isolation and firmly but gently repel all attempts to go there.

Sounds pretty intriguing, doesn't it? The Aloof are a mystery. Obviously highly advanced, but unwilling to interact with humanity. Until two intrepid humans accept an invitation to travel to into Aloof territory to examine a strange rock world inhabited by sentient insect-like creatures.

Still sounds intriguing, doesn't it? As always, Egan is concerned with hard science - mathematics, physics, genetics and astronomy - and indeed the nature of scientific discovery. And therein lies the problem. Incandescence suffers from the same shortcoming as did Schild's Ladder - too much science, not enough fiction. Both the human and insectoid characters are painted far too thinly to arouse any real emotion and the dialogue serves mainly as a vehicle for explaining the science rather than giving any insight into the characters themselves. As a reader I felt a kind if intellectual detachment from the events - like I was watching but not particularly engaged. Rather like the Aloof, in fact.

Nonetheless, the science is intriguing, even for a non-scientific type like me, and the ideas are really big. So, if that's your thing, you'll probably enjoy it more than I did. For me, though, the biggest most intriguing mystery of all, the Aloof themselves, remained unsolved. Indeed, I gleaned little insight into their nature or their motives. For me they remained as aloof as ever.

I still think Egan is one of the best SF writers around, but Incandescence is not his most engaging work.
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on 18 May 2009
This book is very much in the tradition of Hal Clement's hard science fiction, where the investigation of what happens under various extreme physical conditions is the prime focus of the work. For this work, it will definitely help if you are at least somewhat familiar with orbital mechanics as detailed by Newton and Kepler, Einstein's general theory of relativity, and the work of Schwarzschild and Kerr dealing with black hole properties.

The extreme conditions of this book imagine a small, rocky body inhabited by some quite small six-legged insectoid beings that is in orbit around a black hole, and embedded in the black hole's accretion ring. Given the energies and radiation levels associated with such a ring, the inhabitants are by necessity confined to the inside of their little habitat, which provides the necessary shielding from the worst of the radiation, while at the same time the ring provides the necessary energy input to their world to form a functioning biosphere. Clearly, these inhabitants would be at a severe disadvantage in trying to figure out just how their world works, as they cannot just go `outside' and see everything in their heavens. Much of the story of this book revolves around just how they do determine just what is happening, and how they determine both that their world is in danger of having its orbit deteriorate to where it will fall into the black hole and what they can do to avoid such a fate.

This story thread is placed in-between a different story line, where a far-future `human' ("child of DNA") is recruited by the Aloof, a very nebulous group of beings who inhabit the central bulge of stars in our galaxy, to find the origin and current status of an anomalous asteroid found within this bulge with microbiological remnants of DNA based life. As the story progresses, it's clear that the two stories are related, though not directly, and separated in time by perhaps many millennia.

Both story lines are prime examples of the methods of scientific discovery. Most of the charm of this book is in just how the characters connect the observable facts with deductions about the universe around them. The described world of the insectoid race will definitely challenge your sense of `normal', with weird gravitational effects that your first instinct is say `that's impossible' - but as you delve deeper, you begin to see just how such effects would occur, and the fun is watching the major characters determine what is going on. There is a lot of explanation of some fairly esoteric concepts detailed here, somewhat to the detriment of the story line, and this is dense material, as Egan tries to describe in English some rather complicated mathematics. I highly recommend that while reading this, the reader also look at Egan's website at gregegan.net for some nice diagrams and animations that will help with understanding this material (and for those with the necessary background, the actual equations are detailed here also).

However, all this concentration on the pursuit of science means that characterization is fairly slim, and some of the ethical and moral problems faced by the `human' of the second story line don't seem to have any solid grounding in what little background we are given about him. The two story lines do not have a nice, tied-up-with-a-string intersection, but rather the ending is left somewhat open, inviting the reader to do the final connect-the-dots operation.

The net is, if you liked things like Clement's Mission of Gravity and like seeing real science driving a truly odd and different physical scenario that can invoke that `sense of wonder', then this book is for you. If instead, you'd rather have something more character driven, and can't stand math (or had difficulty with algebra and geometry), then this one will leave you cold and unhappy.

---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
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on 28 June 2009
This is based on a short story of the same name Egan published some years ago. This work alludes to the short story but is independent of it. I read the short story first but it would not stand if read later as prequel.

I admire all the Egan works I have read. He undertands story making and physics to which he makes plausible extensions. To my mind Permutation City is Egan's most conceptually challenging and enjoyable work. Incandescence has challenges of its own but is rooted in more conventional physics. To get the best out of it one needs some understanding of gravity because much of the work is taken up with the intriguing question of how beings could deduce their surroundings from within an enclosed orbiting body. Of course, being Egan, a strange place is being orbitted. I strongly recommend this novel
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on 24 June 2009
Greg Egan's stories often have a strong science component. That's not a problem for me, I generally love having my mind twisted by maths or physics while enjoying the story, but in Incandescence the balance is totally lost.

The novel comprises two ultimately related stories, one follows two members of the Amalgam as they journey deep into the territory of the Aloof who control the hub of the galaxy and who passively resist any attempt by the Amalgam to be understood. The other story follows that of a group of aliens living in the Splinter surrounded by the Incandescence.

It's this second story where the real problem lies. Too much of it is taken up with one character explaining physical theories and of them conducting experiments, and that dominates that portion of the novel. It's okay as far as it goes, but both parts of the novel are very thin on characterisation or just plain story.

However some of the old Egan magic is here, and he offers some nice hints on the nature of the Aloof at the end of the book while cleverly avoiding the mistake of actually revealing their exact nature.

In summary, disapointing, but Greg Egan at half power is still better than many writers at their best.
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on 13 October 2010
Incandescence uses the same backround as two stories, Riding the Crocodile and Glory. All are set in the Amalgam, a far future utopia that allows people to follow any path they want to personal enlightment. Boredom is the only remaining problem.

In alternating chapters, two stories seem to go in different directions. Rakesh and Parantham are both looking for adventure. A traveller tells of the Aloof, a presumed civilisation that has no contact with the Amalgam but which dangles the possibility of a quest to solve a puzzle of the origins of some unique DNA. Rakesh and Parantham take up the challenge and follow a complex trail to the remains of an intelligent race whose civilisation was wiped out by stellar instability. The other story concerns aliens living inside what seems like a large planetoid, the Splinter, which periodically undergoes extreme peturbations. Normally just intent on the basic tasks of living, one of their number, Zak, tries to understand the complex behaviour of their habitat. This intellectual quest slowly pulls in Roi, and then more and more of the Splinter's inhabitants, as they realise the need to understand their environment overrides the normal routines of living.

This is not action-packed science fiction. The story set on Splinter is a thinly disguised tutorial on astro-dynamics, illustrated by diagrams, and mathematical speculations being proven (or not) by an ongoing series of measurements/experiments. The quest for the missing alien race story is equally intent on using complex science to unpick a puzzle. What becomes endearing about both is the single-minded quest for understanding. It is almost as though any problem can be solved by rational investigation. While there is little action, there is a lot of incredible speculation. Perhaps this is true science fiction, where science and discovery is the hook, not the story?
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on 31 December 2010
This is a book in at least two parts, maybe three, all of which work well on their own, but never really gel together.

The first two parts, the two fictional ones, concern two parallel journeys. The first, and the most accessible, is by a post-human from a decadent galaxy-spanning multi-species civilisation of the far future. While he is on a journey and quest for knowledge he is ultimately rather a shallow creature - both shallow as a person but also rather shallowly drawn by the author. This is unfortunate, because I get the impression that a lot of readers will be completely lost by the second (and third) parts, find this one accessible but unfulfilling, and so rate both the book and its author poorly. I can't really blame them for this, but they are most definitely wrong.

The second is by a thoroughly alien scientist from a much more primitive culture - one that is pre-technological even. She is something of a Leonardo, who, along with those colleagues that she recruits to the cause of Science!, discover Newtonian mechanics, calculus and even general relativity. Given the circumstances in which Egan has placed her race, I find this to be only a little far-fetched. This second journey is by far the more interesting, at least for someone with the requisite educational background. Unfortunately if you lack that background then it will be impenetrable and dull. It requires a thorough grounding in Newton's theories of motion and gravitation, and at least some in general relativity. Good luck finding that in yer average reader, Mr. Author! Good luck even finding the latter in yer average sci-fi reader!

The third part that I identified is entirely contained within the second, but as well as being fine (if technically demanding) fiction, it would, with only a little editorial tweaking (mostly the translating of the names of the directions from cutesy sci-fi alien lingo and chopping out some text about our aliens' society that serves to make them into people) make an excellent tutorial for A-level physics students.

I recommend this book, but with the caveat that I only recommend it for those who understand general relativity.
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on 5 December 2008
Egan starts with two themes, which he follows in alternating chapters: how members of an ultra-advanced civilisation can avoid terminal boredom; and the strivings of an alien race that has to make technological advances very quickly in order to survive, because the universe is trying to kill them. He handles the "ultra-advanced civilisation" reasonably well, showing how most become plain tourists while his high-tech protagonists embark on a quest.

Unfortunately the "aliens seeking the technology to survive" theme is too burdened down by lectures on the physics that the aliens have to learn so quickly. Egan tries to make these more palatable by describing illustrative experiments, but these only work in an environment where Earth-born intuition is a barrier - orbiting a neutron star that is near the point of being swallowed by the super-massive black hole at the heart of our galaxy, so gravity behaves in ways that are totally unfamiliar to non-physicists.

This is a shame, because the aliens are the real heroes, while the "humans" (post-human, really) are simply a pair of bored rich kids. Robert Forward's "Dragon's Egg" also has alternating "humans" and "aliens" chapters and, although its prose is less polished, it presents the aliens much more engagingly. John Brunner's "The Crucible Of Time" got a poor reception from critics, but also handles an aliens-threatened-with-extinction theme better.
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on 8 September 2008
Having taken transhumanism to it's limits in previous novels, where could Egan go next? The answer is back to first principles with an alien race who's mathematical skills don't even extend as far as multiplication. Their struggle to deduce the nature of the universe from observation in time to avert catastrophe is the central theme of this book. Running parallel to this is an attempt to locate them by a group of people so advanced they have got bored of the universe.

Whilst I enjoyed reading everything written herein, and thought it was up to Egan's usual standard, the book falls short of his previous novels in that it doesn't quite read like a novel - it is more of an extended short story. There is a hint at the end as to how the two plot lines might connect, but it somehow it left me wanting to know more in the way that a complted novel shouldn't.
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on 11 January 2010
Firstly; watch out for plot spoiler reviews!!
(it's not a mystery tour if you know where your heading)

Egan's work is 'Hard' Sci-Fi of the highest order. I give him the edge over Brian Aldis (my other favorite), as concepts are heavier and plots driven by 'rawer' science at a blistering pace.

His breadth of vision astounds; always extrapolating logically to the n'th degree. A modicum of effort may be required from the reader at times; but one is richly rewarded with a sense of awe, discovery and achievement. Each book is a Grand Odyssey.

Hold tight and don't look down, because he'll take you a long, long way from where you started....
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