Friday, April 25, 2008

Dark Integers, Greg Egan

Opening: Good morning, Bruno. How is the weather there in Sparseland?”

The screen icon for my interlocutor was a three-holed torus tiled with triangles, endlessly turning itself inside out. The polished tones of the male synthetic voice I heard conveyed no specific origin, but gave a sense nonetheless that the speaker’s first language was something other than English.

I glanced out the window of my home office, taking in a patch of blue sky and the verdant gardens of a shady West Ryde cul-de-sac. Sam used “good morning” regardless of the hour, but it really was just after ten a.m., and the tranquil Sydney suburb was awash in sunshine and birdsong.Read more...

Capsule: This is one of the most conceptually dense and ambitious sf stories I've ever read. The type of conceptual density I'm referring to is not the accretion of detail that follows from a carefully thought-out construct (a la Hal Clement or Niven-Ringworld, for example) nor a hard sf Ferris wheel which spins Big Concepts like quantum uncertainty, exotic particles, spacetime foam, superstring theory etc. from a cosmic perspective (Baxter et al). The conceptual extrapolation relies on abstract notions, and touches on many different branches of understanding, primarily higher mathematics, epistemology, computation, theoretical physics, and information theory. Egan seamlessly blends fascinating, challenging ideas from all these fields to support his premise of a "border" between different levels of reality and how the knowability of mathematical propositions interfaces with the phyisical processes they describe in a way that actually changes the very definition of what is being described. And that's just the start!

A few paragraphs into Egan's story I knew I was reading something Special. There was a plunge, a leap, an intellectual sweep that few stories are audacious enough to attempt. I went back in an effort to localize the exact moment of revelation, the precise instant of narrative magic that might be the adult version of senseawunda. In re-reading I discovered where this had happened for me.
The following exchange takes place shortly after the above introductory paragraphs:

Sam said, “Someone from your side seems to have jumped the border.”

“Jumped it?”

“As far as we can see, there’s no trench cutting through it. But a few hours ago, a cluster of propositions on our side started obeying your axioms.”

That's the moment when it hit me, the sense of the new, the thrill of the possible, the rush of imagination. But my reaction didn't end there. Consider the next few lines:

I was stunned. “An isolated cluster? With no derivation leading back to us?”

“None that we could find.”

I thought for a while. “Maybe it was a natural event. A brief surge across the border from the background noise that left a kind of tidal pool behind.”

The fact that the protagonist is comfortable speaking in these terms, that he not only follows but is familiar with this language of ideas, told me that there was an unusual confidence at work in the story.

As the story progressed, Egan did a marvelous job of tying the super-abstract layers of discovery back to the real world and realistically describing the emotions and domestic situations of the characters involved. Every possible concern or question I could come up with regarding plausible consistency, plot logic, tone, motivation etc. he addressed, and often before I could even articulate it. It's incredible that such a cerebrally tickling story is also so emotionally involving.

There are some shades of familiarity, for example in the "cabal" situation, the lying to the girlfriend to protect her, the intel-gathering. But they don't detract from the experience of the story. In fact, I think an argument can be made for how they enhance it. By grounding nearly incomprehensible events and ideas in more familiar material, the net effect is to still keep us involved. A story which went so far out on the conceptual limb as to barely let us follow and also made the social dynamics so profoundly alien at the same time would probably end up being altogether too alien for us to keep interested. While the originality and the creativity might be higher, the distancing of the reader would make the construct less successful as an interactive narrative experience.

This piece is currently a 2008 Hugo award nominee in the "Best Novelette" category.
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