Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2012 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE CLOCKWORK ROCKET by Greg Egan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/16/2011]

I have a nitpick is with THE CLOCKWORK ROCKET by Greg Egan (ISBN 978-1-59780-227-7). Egan is so rigorous in his science that it is hard to believe I could nitpick this book, but in part that is my complaint. It takes place on another world--indeed, in a different universe--and so Egan creates no units of measure derived from a base-12 system, and then gives you a table of these in an appendix. For time, we have flickers, pauses, lapse, chimes, bells, days, and stints, each twelve times as long as the previous. For length, there are scants, spans, strides, stretches, saunters, strolls, slogs, separations, and severances. All this emphasizes the difference, the alien-ness of the world. However, this is completely undercut on page one by references to gamboge, saffron, goldenrod, and wheat. (I give him a pass on jade and viridian, because conceivably those chemical compounds could exist even in this alien universe. Or maybe not, but I do not understand the science of the universe enough to know.)

To order The Clockwork Rocket from amazon.com, click here.


"Dark Integers" by Greg Egan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2008]

"Dark Integers" by Greg Egan (ASIMOV'S Oct/Nov) is a sequel to his short story "Luminous". The idea is that there are areas of space (or parallel universes) where the laws of mathematics are different than here, and attacks can be made by pushing our mathematics into them (and vice versa). I think that reading "Luminous" is a prequisite for "Dark Integers", even though Egan attempts to fill in the background in the latter. There is actually at least some basis for the notion of conflicting mathematical systems, since the has been proven that there are propositions such that both a statement and its negation would be consistent with our system of mathematics. Mathematical science fiction is rare, so it is always good to see another work added to it, especially by someone as skilled as Egan.


DIASPORA by Greg Egan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/07/2008]

The science fiction discussion group picked DIASPORA by Greg Egan (ISBN-13 978-0-061-05798-4, ISBN-10 0-061-05798-3) for this month. I know I read it when it first came out (1997), but I don't remember it being as difficult to follow as it was this time. Maybe I made more use of the glossary last time, but frankly, I don't think a novel should require a glossary--or Java-enabled pages demonstrating the mathematical concepts (as Egan has provided for this as well)--to be understood. His shorter fiction (so far) doesn't seem to have this problem; one suspects that there just isn't enough space in a short story to work in characters, a plot, and semi-Riemannian manifolds as well.

To order Diaspora from amazon.com, click here.


DISTRESS by Greg Egan (Phoenix, ISBN 1-85799-484-1, 1996 (1995c), 342pp, L5.99; Harper Prism, ISBN 0-061-04264-7, 1997, 304pp, hardback):

I believe this is scheduled for United States release later this year, but if you're ordering books from Britain, you could as well add this to the list and not have to wait.

As usual, Egan packs a lot of ideas into a single novel. Our protagonist, Andrew Worth, is a 21st century science journalist who seems to concentrate on the sensational. But rather than doing a story on Distress (a new mental disease in which the patients display, not surprisingly, extreme distress), he decides to cover a conference at which leading scientists will present their competing Theories of Everything. This conference is being held on a bio-engineered renegade island called Stateless. That's already five science fiction ideas, and we haven't even gotten to the main part of the book.

Egan also has Violet Mosala, a brilliant African physicist who serves as both the apparent target of assassins and a mouthpiece for some decidedly "politically incorrect" ideas. I do not mean this negatively. When asked, "It seems to me that your whole approach to these issues reflects a male, Western, reductionist, left-brained mode of thought. How can you possibly reconcile this with your struggle as an African woman against cultural imperialism?" Mosala replies, "I have no interest in squandering the most powerful intellectual tools I possess, because of some quaint misconception that they're the property of any particular people: male, Western, or otherwise."

Although the interplay of politics and science is part of what makes this book fascinating, the somewhat straightforward political intrigue centering around Stateless does seem like piling Ossa on Pelion. Everything else ties together reasonably well, but that seems somewhat detached. The core of this book is similar to the core of many of Egan's other works (including his Hugo-nominated "Luminous," and his latest, "Reasons for Feeling Cheerful," which is already on my Hugo list for next year): does knowing or understanding something, whether a single phenomenon or the whole universe, change it, or our reaction to it? Does a "law" exist before it's understood? To what extent do our perceptions and understandings control the universe?

Not being a physicist, I can't judge the physics, but there are a couple of small errors I did note. There are no pyramids in the Valley of the Kings and at one point someone is described as a "loose canon."

This is another great Egan novel. Yes, I know that's redundant, but I want to make sure you realize this is a very positive recommendation. I'm sure there's a good reason that it's taken two years to get this book published in the United States; I just can't imagine what it is.

To order Distress from amazon.com, click here.


"Fidelity" by Greg Egan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/08/2012]

For some reason I was recently reminded of a Greg Egan story, "Fidelity". The premise is that there is a new procedure that will freeze your emotions. Couples who are in love have the procedure done to make sure they will always be in love. A woman wants to have the procedure, but her husband is not as eager. He's just a little bit uncertain about whether he is completely in love with her. But she convinces him to do it, and when they leave after the procedure, all he can think is, "It can't--it truly can't--get better than this."

I thought of this story when I saw the film S1M0NE (about a producer/director who produces a digital star for his next film). As I said in my mini-review of S1M0NE, "Though he starts by wishing that ... as a director could have complete creative control over his films, there is a great scene when he realizes that this comes with a price: he will never get less than he wants, but he can never get more than he already has either."

I must admit I mis-remembered a couple of details of the Egan story. For example, I thought it was in ANALOG, while it was in ASIMOV'S. (I also did not remember the title or the author--thanks are due to Joseph Nebus for answering my query on rec.arts.sf.written.)

As for Egan's story being in ASIMOV'S rather than ANALOG, I think that is an understandable error on my part. Egan is considered one of the "diamond-hard" science fiction writers, yet according to his bibliography page, he has had only one story appear in ANALOG ("Beyond the Whistle Test", 1989) while he has had about fifteen or sixteen in ASIMOV'S. Somehow it seems like it should be vice versa.


"Glory" by Greg Egan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2008]

"Glory" by Greg Egan (in the anthology THE NEW SPACE OPERA) is about two explorers who travel through some physics mumbo-jumbo to a distant planet populated by two antagonistic peoples so that they can try to find the ultimate mathematical secret hidden on some ancient tablets before the area is completed flooded. This sounds pretty straightforward, but Egan adds some twists that make it into something else entirely, with more emphasis on psychology than on mathematics. (Egan is competing with himself here, but the automatic run-off system used for Hugo voting ought to ward off any problems.)

To order The New Space Opera from amazon.com, click here.


AN UNUSUAL ANGLE by Greg Egan (Norstrilia Press, ISBN 0-909106-12-6, 1983, 200pp, trade paperback):

No, this is not a new Greg Egan novel; it is an old Greg Egan novel. Actually, it is a very old Greg Egan novel--his first novel. Someone discovered a case of them in a basement somewhere and they showed up at Aussiecon Three, where I immediately grabbed one. (See last paragraph for availability information.)

The plot of this book is not like Egan's later work, but the wealth of ideas--and many of the same ideas--that characterize his later work is. There is a section on how quantum mechanics restored the concept of free will. The protagonist sends out "viewpoints"--essentially non-material copies of himself--to perform various tasks. The protagonist is (literally) making films in his head, which conjures up a vision of universes within an individual mind, which in turn conjures up the image of layers of universes. (And yes, I mean literally--the protagonist claims to have an actual little film lab in there!)

The protagonist--first-person narrator, in this case--is a student at what appears to be (in United States terms) a private preparatory school. Though it many ways it seems to be run by the same sort of people as the upper management in "Dilbert," the narrator actually finds some method in their madness. That is, their insane methods are actually logical to achieve their goals--it's just that their goals are insane also.

I find it interesting that both Greg Egan and Neal Stephenson both have their first novel out of print, somewhat disowned by themselves, and set in an academic environment. I suppose this may be a function of "write what you know." The value of this suggestion can be judged by comparing the quality of these authors' later works--arguably about things they have no firsthand experience or knowledge of--to their first novels. (And how much did Shakespeare really know about early Scottish politics?)

This book is out of print (and unlikely to come back into print, from what I've heard), but Slow Glass Books, GPO Box 2708X, Melbourne, Victoria 3001 AUSTRALIA may still have a few copies [as of September 1999]. They take credit cards, so a letter with your credit card information and a statement authorizing them to charge it for the price (A$14.95) plus shipping and handling would probably be easiest for those not in Melbourne. (I note that hardback versions are going for US$500.)

To order An Unusual Angle from amazon.com, click here.


ZENDEGI by Greg Egan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/11/2011]

ZENDEGI by Greg Egan (ISBN 978-1-59780-174-4) is really two novels: one the story of the transition of Iran to a more progressive country through popular uprising, and the other the story of the development of progressively more human entities in a virtual reality world. The former resonates very much with current events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, even though it was written at least a year ago. The latter is more typical of Egan, and takes up more than half of the book, but frankly, it is the former than is more interesting. I found myself profoundly uninterested in the adventures of the protagonists in the V.R. world, and wished Egan had spent more time developing the situation in Iran.

By the way, Egan is known for his rock-hard science and accuracy, so when I looked at the dates on his two sections and they looked wrong, I asked what could possibly be the reason.

The first is 2012 (presumably A.D./C.E.), but with the year in Persian digits given as 1390-1391. It appears that Egan merely subtracted 622 from the C.E. date, but if 1390 is a date on the Islamic calendar (A.H.), that is a lunar calendar that makes no adjustments to sync up with the solar one, and 2012 will actually be A.H. 1433-1434. The second section is 2027-2028, given in Persian as 1406, again apparently by subtracting 622. It should be A. H. 1449. (For a rough estimate, multiply the difference between solar years by 1.0313, then add that to 622.)

But could Egan have gotten this wrong? Well, I suppose it's possible, but in this case, the missing detail is that Iran uses not the Islamic calendar, but the Persian calendar, which is a "lunisolar" calendar (like the Jewish calendar) that uses intercalary months and days to "sync up" with the solar calendar. So in fact, the dates are not A.H., but are A.P., and are correct.

Translating Egan's dates was a bit difficult, as the Persian digits for 4, 5, and 6 are different than the digits used in Arabic, while the rest are the same. And just to note: what we call Arabic numerals--0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9--are actually Indian; the Arabs use a different set, and Iranians/Persians yet a third set. Egan did get this last part right as well.

To order Zendegi from amazon.com, click here.


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