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April 14, 2007

Incandescence

Posted by John Baez

My favorite science fiction writer is coming out with a new novel!

  • Greg Egan, Incandescence, Orion/Gollancz, United Kingdom, to be published May 1st, 2008.

That’s a long time to wait. Luckily, we can already read a story set in the same universe:

Here’s a little information about Incandescence from Egan’s website… more may show up later:

Synopsis

“Almost everything about this world remains to be discovered,” Lahl said. “Until someone is willing to pursue the matter vigorously, the few scraps of information I’m carrying will mean very little.”

Rakesh was beginning to feel as if he was being prodded awake from a stupefying dream that had gone on so long he’d stopped believing it could ever end. He’d come to this node, this cross-roads, in the hope of encountering exactly this kind of traveller, but in ninety-six years he’d learnt nothing from the people passing through that he could not have heard on his home world. He’d made friends among the other node-dawdlers, and they passed the time together pleasantly enough, but his old, naive fantasy of colliding with a stranger bearing a surfeit of mysteries — a weary explorer announcing, “I’ve seen enough for one lifetime, but here, take this crumb from my pocket” — had been buried long ago.

A million years from now, the galaxy is divided between the vast, cooperative meta-civilisation known as the Amalgam, and the silent occupiers of the galactic core known as the Aloof. The Aloof have long rejected all attempts by the Amalgam to enter their territory, but have permitted travellers to take a perilous ride as unencrypted data in their communications network, providing a short-cut across the galaxy’s central bulge. When Rakesh encounters a traveller, Lahl, who claims she was woken by the Aloof on such a journey and shown a meteor full of traces of DNA, he accepts her challenge to try to find the uncharted world deep in the Aloof’s territory from which the meteor originated.

Roi and Zak live inside the Splinter, a translucent world of rock that swims in a sea of light they call the Incandescence. Living on the margins of a rigidly organised society, they seek to decipher the subtle clues that can reveal the true nature of the Splinter. In fact, their world is in danger, and as the evidence accumulates Roi, Zak, and a growing band of recruits struggle to understand and take control of their fate.

Meanwhile, Rakesh and his travelling companion Parantham gradually uncover the history of the lost DNA world, a search which ultimately leads them to startling revelations that encompass both the Splinter, and the true nature and motives of the Aloof.

Posted at April 14, 2007 8:55 PM UTC

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Re: Incandescence

“Riding the Crocodile” was an enjoyable read. It had some of the flavor of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The City and the Stars” but with a unique Eganic spice, scarcely separable into a structured and a pseudorandom component. I look forward to “Incandescence”, to re-appreciate the subtle foreshadowings embedded in “Riding the Crocodile.” Embodied as me who has read, will I find a twisted natural transformation back to the me who left this comment?

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on April 15, 2007 6:51 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Incandescence

If the novel captures my attention the way that the story just did, I need to plan on losing a small chunk of time from my schedule about a year from now.

In the meantime I’m motivated to re-read Solaris, by Lem. It evokes many of the same feelings–of the pull of the desire for impossible knowledge against the desire to simply enjoy existence.

Posted by: Stefan on April 17, 2007 5:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Incandescence

Indeed, one nice thing about certain SF stories — like Riding the Crocodile, or some other things by Egan, or parts of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, or some of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels — is that they tackle the problems faced by people whose basic needs are all met, and who thus need to tackle the question what’s really worth doing, when you have the freedom to try anything?

A lot of non-SF writing — so-called ‘serious literature’ — features characters faced with this question who collapse into self-destructive behavior. This is an important problem, but ultimately I find it a bit boring. Yes, you can become a drug addict, kill someone, or slit your wrists…. next?

So, it’s really nice to read fiction with characters who find somewhat better solutions to this question.

In particular, there’s a lot of room for interesting disagreements in the region between ‘the desire between impossible knowledge’ and ‘the desire to simply enjoy existence’.

And, at least in our world, don’t forget ‘the desire to help the less fortunate’.

Posted by: John Baez on April 17, 2007 8:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Incandescence

I agree wholeheartedly with John Baez on this.

I’ve discussed exactly this with Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain M. Banks and others. The buzzword is: “Economics of abundance.”

Science fiction is far in front of “mundane literature” in imagining such future societies, which are not necessarily Utopias (i.e.: Fred Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” or the considerable violence in Banks’ Culture).

I’ve written about his at length elsewhere, and presented papers on it at conferences, so I’ll just stop by saying again that I really agree with John Baez.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on April 18, 2007 3:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Incandescence

I completely agree with John too. SF has imagined a lot of such future societies, as you say, Jonathan; but Egan’s citizens go further in their ‘quest for impossible knowledge’ than those of almost any other science-fictional society I can remember reading about. (Though I suppose Asimov’s, in The Last Question, achieve even more, in the end…) Here’s a quote from Incandescence that I like. It shows us one thing that’s worth doing, when you have the freedom to do anything:

‘Interesting Truths’ referred to a kind of theorem which captured subtle unifying insights between broad classes of mathematical structures. In between strict isomorphism — where the same structure recurred exactly in different guises — and the loosest of poetic analogies, Interesting Truths gathered together a panoply of apparently disparate systems by showing them all to be reflections of each other, albeit in a suitably warped mirror. Knowing, for example, that multiplying two positive integers was really the same as adding their logarithms revealed an exact correspondence between two algebraic systems that was useful, but not very deep. Seeing how a more sophisticated version of the same could be established for a vast array of more complex systems — from rotations in space to the symmetries of subatomic particles — unified great tracts of physics and mathematics, without collapsing them all into mere copies of a single example.

P.S. Some of you, I’m sure, have read Norman Kagan’s short story The Mathenauts (described very briefly, with a few quotes, here). I would love to see Egan rewrite this with a more “convincing” justification. Perhaps setting it in the universe of his short stories Luminous and Dark Integers?

Posted by: Jocelyn Paine on July 29, 2008 4:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Incandescence

Well said, Jocelyn!

  • Incandescence, by Greg Egan, Hardcover: 256 pages, Night Shade Books: 16 July 2008.
    ISBN-10: 1597801283
    ISBN-13: 978-1597801287
    Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on July 29, 2008 6:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Incandescence

Thanks for letting us know that Greg’s book is out, Jocelyn! Thanks for the nice paragraph! I want to get ahold of that book soon.

And thanks for letting the less inspired among us automatically generate our own SF plots:

Planet 9 of Alpha-Centauri

is struck by a comet

and is visited by good

mutant brewers yeast cells

who

rewind time to before the disaster

but then

Earth

is used as the cue ball in a game of galactic bar-billiards

and is visited by good

robots

who

save it and enslave everyone.

Hmm, or maybe not.

Posted by: John Baez on August 2, 2008 3:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Incandescence

I have just tried to put a human face on transhumanism, by answering the question “What’s really worth doing?” in a rather personal way. At my Dr Dobbs blog, Why I Want to be Transhuman.

Happy Christmas!

Posted by: Jocelyn Paine on December 23, 2008 4:53 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Incandescence

At the risk of wandering completely beyond the subject matter of this blog, I suspect by far the best way to “put a human face on transhumanism” would be to abandon the awful term “transhumanism”. While it’s probably not a universal human aspiration to wish for the kind of peace, prosperity and longevity that would enable people (among many other things) to sit around thinking about mathematics for a few millennia, adopting a word that suggests that to achieve such goals is to “transcend” humanity is probably the dumbest PR move in history. It seems to have been very effective at attracting crackpots, but for encouraging normal, sane people to view potentially beneficial alterations to their body, let alone their computational substrate, with anything other than suspicion, it’s an incredibly stupid and counter-productive word.

Posted by: Greg Egan on December 24, 2008 1:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Incandescence

While it doesn’t quite fit into the main line of chat on this blog, I certainly don’t mind if on this particular blog entry people talk about ‘transhumanism’ — or other topics relevant to Incandescence, or Greg’s fiction more generally. We’re allowed to have a little fun now and then.

Posted by: John Baez on December 24, 2008 1:43 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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