Why Isn’t Greg Egan A Superstar?

I have a confession to make. About ten years ago, I pretty much gave up on reading science fiction. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it anymore; it was that I increasingly felt like I had already read all the good stuff, so I decided to take a few years off. But even during that period, there were still a few authors I simply couldn’t not buy if I came across their new work. William Gibson, Neal Stephenson … and most of all, Greg Egan.

(If you haven’t read any Egan, you so should. He takes the wildest frontiers of today’s science and turns them into truly brainbending speculative fiction that continually challenges the reader’s ideas of both reality and humanity. He’s also a terrific sentence-by-sentence writer. I’d recommend you start with his novel Permutation City1, previously reviewed here by Jo Walton, and/or his collection Axiomatic.)

Flash forward to last month, when I stumbled across an online reference to Egan’s new novel Incandescence, investigated, and realized that I’d managed to entirely miss his previous book, Schild’s Ladder. Naturally I raced out to rectify this. But to my surprise I found that my local Chapters—the Canadian equivalent of Barnes & Noble—boasted nary a single Greg Egan book, old or new. The indie bookstore Pages around the corner had but a single copy of Schild’s Ladder … one which utilizes the innovative marketing strategy of a cover completely devoid of author’s name, book title, or indeed any text at all. Incandescence is published in the USA by Night Shade Books, a very fine small press, but a small press nonetheless.

What exactly is going on here? This is the author I describe as my favourite living science fiction writer2, the hard-science heir to Philip K. Dick. (I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms. It isn’t.) Greg Egan is comparable to, and if you ask me better in many ways than, runaway bestseller Vernor Vinge. So why hasn’t he experienced similar success?

1. Dumb bad luck of the zeitgeist.

I don’t really buy this. It’s true that publishing is a crap shoot, and to have a hit book, you have to have all the stars—author, publisher, bookstores, public—lined up in the right direction at the right time; but still, over time, a talent as profound and original as Egan ought to have shone through the dross. (And I still believe this will happen. It would just be nice if it happened in his lifetime.)

2. He’s all ideas.

The Times calls him “one of the genre’s great ideas men,” and The Guardian refers to his work as “wonderful mind-expanding stuff”—and maybe that’s his problem right there. It’s true that his short stories are often superior to his novels—often the sign of a writer whose ideas are wonderful can’t sustain story and character at book length.

Plausible, but no. His characters are remarkably compelling, considering their context. It’s been more than a decade since I read Permutation City, but I still remember its protagonist Paul Durham’s name, which is rare for me, and the sympathy, horror, and amusement I felt when Durham shouted “Durham! You prick!” (to a version of himself that just imprisoned another version of himself without a suicide switch, as an experiment to—um—look, just read it, OK?) The book also features one of the most tragicomically awkward sex scenes in the history of SF. Egan leads with his inimitable ideas, yes, but he’s a very good writer in every sense.

3. His characters are inhuman.

Fine, so his characters are well-written, but they’re unsympathetic. The protagonist of Distress is almost autistic. Egan sometimes treats emotions like he treats sex, as an interesting but fundamentally barbarous holdover from prehistoric times. Almost all of his protagonists are excessively, coldly rational, verging on inhuman. How can a reader identify with them?

I put this very argument to my fellow tor.com blogger Jo Walton3 some time ago, and as is her sometime wont, she destroyed it with five words: “Have you read ‘The Cutie’?” At which I sort of spluttered for a moment and then shut up.

“The Cutie,” Egan’s very first short story, is about a man who wants a baby so desperately that he buys a genetically engineered baby-substitute. It is one of the the most sentimental and emotional horror stories every written. Consider also “Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies,” another story in Axiomatic, which on one level is about strange attractors, but on another, just as compelling, is about belonging and belief and loneliness. Meanwhile, the characters in Schild’s Ladder, who are not exactly human at all—they have “quantum singleton processors” instead of meat brains, and refer to our era as the Age of Death—may be coldly rational about their emotions, but feel them no less keenly: Every kind of happiness bore some imprint in the shape of the pain it had assuaged is a line that I suspect will stick with me.

His work is not unemotional or inhuman. Distant, yes, but so is that of Gene Wolfe and Stanley Kubrick, and there are worse models for critical and cultural success.

4. He’s too smart for his own good.

This sounds elitist already, for which I apologize. “Egan, my favourite writer, isn’t a bestseller because he’s just too smart for all the rest of you!” That’s not what I mean.

But I do mean that we are after all talking about an author whose web site features Java applets he wrote to illustrate the science in his work. His books are bursting with scientific speculation and often-intimidating terminology. I love his short story “Wang’s Carpets,” (also part of his novel Diaspora) which is sort of about Fourier-transformed aliens4—but would I have understood what the hell was going on if I didn’t have an electrical engineering degree, the acquisition of which required the calculation of far too many Fourier transforms before breakfast? Do readers without any technical background have any hope of getting Egan at all?

It’s hard for me to say—but you know what, I don’t think you need a degree, you just need to have read some pop science, and accept that there might be occasional paragraphs in his work that you skid over without really grokking. (Which I suspect happens to almost all of his readers.) And even when you don’t get the science, you can still understand the stories, because his work is about humanity as much as reality. Take Gene Wolfe again, as a parallel example: his brilliant short story “How I Lost The Second World War And Helped Turned Back The German Invasion” is on one level about the inner workings of transistors4, but it’s a fantastic read even if you never notice that. Egan too is a good enough writer that his work succeeds on multiple levels.

5. It’s not that his stories and characters are bad; it’s that they’re window dressing.

A subtler and more damning version of theory #2: Egan’s characters are well-drawn, yes, but they exist only to illustrate his ideas. His plots are constructed solely to explore the ramifications of those ideas, not what happens to the characters. As a result his books engage the intellect but fail to fire one’s emotions.

I have to admit there’s some truth to this. Contrast Egan’s recent work with Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky. The latter is chock-full of fascinating ideas, but the story is fundamentally about people, including the hero who happens to be an arachnid alien, but is no less human for it. The ideas are integral, but not the central focus. They serve the story, rather than the other way around.

This was true of Egan’s early novels Permutation City and Distress, but it’s not true of Schild’s Ladder or Teranesia or Diaspora. (Or of Vinge’s latest, Rainbows End, which may be one reason I found it so disappointing.) In a recent interview Egan is quoted regarding Incandescence, “The only sense in which it was personal is that I’m just as fascinated by general relativity as Zak and Roi.” Which kind of says it all.

But this impersonality might be an unavoidable occupational hazard: Egan’s more recent work is mostly far-future nature-of-reality speculation that makes Olaf Stapledon look like a piker, so how personal can it be? I note with interest, however, that he also says in that interview, “My next book is a comedy about the geopolitics of virtual reality, set in the very near future.”

I for one can’t hardly wait.


1If you have a truly dire need for distraction, here’s a review of Permutation City (and The Diamond Age) that I wrote when I was but a callow undergrad, thirteen years ago. God, I’m old.

2Although this is really only true if you classify Gene Wolfe as fantasy.

3Yes, it’s true, we all know each other and hang out together. You should totally come to our parties.

4My books are geographically scattered, so I’m going on years-old memory here. Stop me if I’m wrong.

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