Dark Integers and Other Stories by Greg Egan

Paul R. Potts

I wrote the original version of this this review for Amazon.com.

I am a Greg Egan fan from way back. It is absolutely ludicrous that this Hugo and Campbell award-winning author, who has written some of the most engaging and challenging science fiction novels and stories to be found anywhere, is almost nowhere to be found on the shelves of the chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Noble, while the shelves are dripping with soft-porn vampire novels and Heinlein ripoffs. Their buyers should be shot.

Anyway, the stories collected in this volume are “Luminous”, “Riding the Crocodile”, “Dark Integers”, “Glory”, and “Oceanic.” This is a relatively small number of stories — it’s certainly not an omnibus of Egan’s work, or even a “best-of,” although these are longish stories. If you want to dig deeper into Egan’s stories, I recommend the collections “Axiomatic” (older) and “Luminous” (newer). If you buy those in addition to this book, you’ll wind up with two copies of “Luminous,” the story, but they don’t overlap other than that. It is shameful that so much of his work is out of print, but you ought to be able to find these two collections used.

“Luminous” and “Dark Integers” are set in the same world-line, in which it is discovered that some of the fundamental mathematical properties of the universe can be altered by doing computer-driven proofs using one chain of reasoning versus another — in other words, the actual set of provable mathematics is malleable depending on your starting point, and not just necessarily incomplete, as Godel showed. This is a fascinating conceit, a bit like the idea that manufacturing a new molecule, or a new isomer, may be hard to do the first time, but once it is manufactured, it can easily be replicated elsewhere in the world because somehow the rules of reality have shifted. Whether either of these conceits is factually plausible above the quantum scale is hard to say, but it is thought-provoking, and that’s what Egan’s fiction does best. They even become grim and thrilling, like the best spy stories! Egan is great at turning a very abstract premise into a gripping human-centered story. I read both of these originally in Asimov’s, but it is nice to have them in one place.

“Riding the Crocodile” and “Glory” are set in the world of his next novel, Incandescence. I wound up making myself late for work this morning because I got engaged in “Riding the Crocodile.” The setup for that story that in world that has achieved pretty much the penultimate level of technology, a couple that has experienced ten thousand subjective years together is flirting with suicide because they can find no more to look forward to, until they settle on the idea of trying to make contact with the Aloof — a civilization that seems to inhabit the galactic core. But the Aloof won’t communicate with anyone, hence the name; all probes sent in are carefully bounced out unharmed. In fact, it isn’t really clear if there are still sentient beings remaining in there, or just their automated defenses.

When Egan creates a world, he doesn’t mess around — he does his homework! (See his web site for some insight into what I mean.) In this he is a bit like some of the best hard science fiction writers from yesteryear, like Robert L. Forward and Hal Clement, although Egan is much more “balls-to-the-wall!” “Riding the Crocodile” involves relativistic velocities, encryption, and data networking, but it is primarily a human story about the two characters trying to decide how to engage with a world that is driving them mad with ennui.

“Glory” is again a story about two people facing the universe, but this time the set-up involves one of the most bizarre but scientifically feasible spacecraft imaginable, and a head-on approach to a first contact scenario that results in another set of ethical dilemmas. “Glory” is up for another Hugo award and seems likely to win it.

“Oceanic” is his previous Hugo award-winning story about an alternative sexuality on an alien world. It is also excellent, although a little disturbing and not for children. Oh, and not for close-minded fundamentalist religious persons of any type. I also read this story in Asimov’s, although again it is nice to have a more permanent book.

I’m removing half a point because, on the subject of permanence, I’m not terribly impressed with this hardcover. After receiving some recent Charles Stross hardcovers put out by Golden Gryphon press and Philip K. Dick’s volume from Library of America, I am spoiled — these two presses show that it is possible to manufacture small, durable hardcover books with sewn bindings. Dark Integers is glued, like most so-called hardcover books produced these days. It feels sturdy enough, but I’m sick of this trend towards cheap binding.

The other half a point is because of the slipcover design. It is an embarrassment. It looks like it is trying to be evocative, even erotic, with arms and legs and what appear to be Curta calculators (look them up!) over some kind of logo, but why do the limbs appear to be amputated, and what’s with the blue floating brain? (Note: there are no giant blue floating brains or amputated limbs to speak of in these stories.) I was embarrassed to have my co-workers see this book cover. Even an abstract fractal or a cliched rocket ship or alien landscape with three moons would be far more attractive than this depressing Photoshop train wreck. Note to publisher: people who read science fiction may, believe it or not, still have taste. Egan deserves better! Don’t judge this book by its cover!

Saginaw, Michigan
March 27, 2008

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