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Like undergoing a brutal assault by an Ikea catalogue crossed with a maths geek
on 3 February 2011
Oh lord. I came to Diaspora after having it recommended by several friends. I'm not a MASSIVE fan of sci-fi but had, once, greatly enjoyed the Big (cheesy?) Names, like Ian M Banks, Arthur C Clarke, Asimov, etc, etc. I was looking for a change, and'd been told that Diaspora is utterly incredible and has an unbelievable reveal.
Very well! To the book!!
And.... good grief. What a let-down. It isn't the ideas that I struggled with. The ideas are absolutely fantstic. The first 40-50 pages contain several sparkling ideas, of eminently spectacular creativity and originality. Egan has, clearly, put a tremendous amount of work into developing a complex understanding of a realistic (and very alternative) reality.
But... the writing is awful. Not a little bit bad. Awful. A huge chunk of the second chapter (the first chapter is only 2 pages long, fwiw) is devoted to explaining the development / evolution / creation of what seems to be a free-floating / not-entirely-corporeal / substantially-mathematical entity. Great idea. In outline. But then, good grief, he begins going into it. Page after page after page of how many hundreds of this go into forming how many billions of that, which are portrayed as a map which is blue on green here and grey on a white stripe here and and... Swiftly followed by a chunk of writing on the development of the entity's 'consciousness.'
I quote from the book: "These traps began to form connections with each other, using them at first just to share their judgements, to sway each other's decisions. if the trap for the image of a lion was triggered, then the traps for its linear name, for the kind of sounds other lions had been heard to make, for common features seen in their behaviour (licking cubs, pursuing antelope) all became hypersensitive. Sometimes the incoming data triggered a whole cluster of linked traps all at once, strengthening their mutual connections, but sometimes there was time for overeager associate traps to start firing prematurely. The lion shape has been recognised - and though the word 'lion' has not yet been detected, the 'lion' word-trap is tentatively firing ... and so are the traps for cub-licking and antelope-chasing."
I feel as if this is kinda 'This Is Spot. See Spot Run. Run, Spot, Run' only, well, for an Ikea catalogue of consciousness development. Super-clunky. Really uninvolved. And - most importantly - there's just no emotional hook at this point. There are - literally - no characters yet, some 20 pages of technical clunkiness on. Just a huge exegesis of ploddingly disconnected technical blather.
Then, suddenly, hallelujah! The being is developed. And - woo - it actually begins to meet some other entities. And for all of 10 or 15 pages, there is - briefly - some interaction. A bit of character development. Just a little bit, but I almost began to give a monkey's about the apparent protagonist. Which was nice.
I was kinda hoping the book would continue in a similar vein, but as soon as chapter three began it was apparent that the 'characters' were again acting as inconvenient hooks to hang some extremely clever ideas off. Cue several pages of agonisingly dull exposition about rendering toruses (tori?) and spheres in 2, 3, and 4 dimensions in Euclidean geometry. It's worth pointing out that - again - there is literally no character development here. The 'characters' speak words that are convenient for the exposition of the idea, they say nothing that might endow them with any kind of individuality or noteworthy characteristics. And nothing catchy, well-phrased, or tidily-written, either. Just plodding, semi-articulate nuts-and-bolts explanation.
AND from there it leads into a painfully detailed, utterly depersonalised description of the 'truth mines,' where the archived history of all mathematical truths ab origine is held. For another several pages. With - again - zero character development or, tbh, plotting of any kind.
This is - I guess - perhaps what some of the other reviewers meant when they said that Egan can be 'hard going' in places. I don't mind hard going. I have to read quite a few (quantitative and qualitative) academic articles / books for my day job; hard going I can handle. But this is just... awful. For a 'novel,' at least. Or for anything that's meant to be drawing the reader in, communicating effectively, developing meaningful characters, offering any incentive or an emotional hook to continue reading further...
Suffering a severe attack of the 'why-am-I-botherings,' following the maths mines I skipped ahead to an arbitrary page and read the first line of dialogue. P.280, fwiw. The line of dialogue: "If we could work out macrosphere physics in enough detail, do you think we could cause the singularity to emit a stream of particles that coalesced into a functioning C-Z clone? Or maybe we could start with a cloud of raw materials, then create nanomachines to fabricate the polis?"
Good lord, give me a break! I can see the Ideas writ large in this. I can see the technical genius, the wonderful ideas, the blah blah blah. What I've continuously and consistently failed to find in Diaspora is any plotting or characterisation, any writing skills or emotional engagement, that makes the ideas remotely worth bothering with or going after.
I'd be tempted to venture that a book like this DOESN'T NEED to be that hard going. Anywhere. Regardless of the complexity of the ideas. It just IS hard going, because there's no substantial content OTHER than the ideas. In terms of either structure, or process. Certainly not within the first 50-60 pages, at least.
My copy's off to Oxfam; best of luck to you if you're up for giving this a shot.