Greg Egan’s Incandescence: Egan Channels Robert L. Forward and Hal Clement in a Hard Science Fiction Tale

Paul R. Potts

I wrote the original version of this this review for

Greg Egan is one of my favorite science fiction authors, but he seems to be nearly unknown in the U.S. I have been waiting for this book to arrive for some time, so I wound up ordering a British edition from Amazon UK. This review assumes the text is the same.

Egan’s story is set in the galactic core, inhabited by a race known as the Aloof, because they seem almost indifferent to any attempts at communication from the Amalgam, the loose network of civilizations that inhabit the rest of the galaxy. However, they do allow thrill-seeking members of the Amalgam to enter their transportation network, digitizing themselves for transmission at the speed of light across the galactic core, instead of the long way around it.

A chunk of rock containing DNA leads a couple to commit their efforts to tracking down the mystery of a lost alien race inside the Aloof-controlled core. That’s the setup, but the real fascination of this book is the weird physics and civilization of the surviving aliens, who live on a fragment of rock in the gravity well of a neutron star. By a process of deduction and scientific measurement using primitive tools the inhabitants are able to deduce their true situation in the universe and also to come to understand the perils they face.

Much of the book consists of the scientific inquiries of the aliens, rendered in great detail, in particular the way they deduce their orbital mechanics by measuring the forces at work inside their world. It reminds me of Robert L. Foward’s fantastic hard SF novel Dragon’s Egg, which describes a race living on the surface of a neutron star, their bodies made out of degenerate matter. I’m also reminded of Hal Clement’s classic Mission of Gravity.

Egan tries to make his stories character-driven, and although we do wind up caring what happens to his characters, he really shines at the physics. If you don’t have a good working knowledge of gravitation and the forces that act on a body while in an orbit or rotating, you won’t really get much out of this book. Perhaps that dooms it to a relatively small audience. But if you like physics and you like speculative fiction, and in particular like thinking about the scientific method and how we came to discover what we know about the universe, you just might love it!

Saginaw, Michigan
June 27, 2008

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