Thu
Dec 18 2008 12:04pm
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.

28 comments
A different Eric
1. A different Eric
To this day, I can't read Greg Egan's Border Guards without weeping at the end of the story. He looks at the world with such decency and optimism.

Among Egan's novels, my favorites are Schild's Ladder, Permutation City and Diaspora.

Incandescence is a challenging novel--the science can be heavy going, even by Greg Egan's standards, and the narrative structure is decidedly odd and (for me) ultimately unsatisfying. But when it comes to "sense of wonder", Incandescence stands with the best.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
You missed "Because he's an Australian, and thus published upside-down". I don't really mean upside-down, but I don't think it has been good for his career to have been published first in Britain and Australia and only in the US as an afterthought, when the books weren't eligible for major awards and the kind of attention that gets. There are British writers who have suffered from this too -- Banks, McDonald -- but they have the advantage of being in Britain and able to talk to their British publishers. Egan's in Australia, and very reclusive from what I hear. It can't help.

Incidentally, I read "The Cutie" in Interzone, was completely knocked over by it and have been looking out for him ever since. If it was his first ever story, then I have been following his career since the very beginning.
piaw na
3. piaw
I subscribed to Interzone mostly because of Greg Egan. I too am surprised that he's not better known.
Jason Robertson
4. redag
This is a me too post. I don't have anything unique to say. Egan should be a huge monster author.

To add something individual, I've always thought Distress under-rated amongst his novels. It opened the broadest front of engagement with the state of the world as it is, I think.
A different Eric
5. Andrew Plotkin
(Apologies if this double-posts. Web site got pissy with my non-Javascript browser.)

> “Have you read ‘The Cutie’?” At which I sort of spluttered for a moment and then shut up. [...] Egan’s very first short story...

Well, yes.

Egan's most powerful work is _Axiomatic_, the collection of his earliest short stories. The novels people seem to remember the best are his first two(*), _Quarantine_ and _Permutation City_. But even those are rather arid showcases for ideas, with plots threaded hastily down the middle.

I started to become disenchanted with Egan with _Distress_, which was a fantastic short story presented as a first chapter, and then some decent iteration of the world for the rest of the book. _Teranesia_ was the same, except without the first chapter. After that I wasn't a fan. His ideas seemed to be poorly served by being scraped out to novel-length.

Maybe the answer to your question is, the current SF scene has no room for short-story superstars.

(* First two widely-published, I remind myself, but I never read _An Unusual Angle_.)
ennead ennead
7. ennead
I'm a big fan of Egan's. With each new novel of his, I ask myself that same question. He should definitely be more well known.

Favorite moments:

- Reading in Permutation City an exact description of the feelings I had - and thought very private - while working on complex simulated systems. Eerie. Also, the skyscraper climber is still haunting me, nearly 15 years later.
- Diaspora. All of it: amazing prologue, brain-shaking ideas (the stone computers, the inescapable doom plot, Wang's carpets, the black hole, the story's climax, etc.), touching conclusion... It's also one of the only two books that have induced vertigo in me, the other one being A Fire Upon the Deep.
- Schild's Ladder's amazing setting (femtometers away from a universe-changing wave travelling at a fraction of light speed) and its alien yet believable characters.
- Incandescence and its ode to the scientific method, on par with Stephenson's Quicksilver. The arkdwellers' speech patterns. The arkbuilders' foresight. The stunning final revelation. Brilliant.

I believe that the biggest obstacle to getting the most out of Egan's books is that you should read them all, in order. Each of his stories builds on what he's done before, goes further, asks deeper questions, as if the previous ones were considered answered (contrast the end of Diaspora with the beginning of Incandescence).
It's worth taking the journey, though.
Blue Tyson
8. BlueTyson
2.

Sure, and futher, doesn't go out of his way to pander by setting story number 9,678,893,721 in New York or Los Angeles. Something that given the particular insularity of the US market could probably have increased his popularity a little.

In one of his on-line interviews he does say he has zero interest in public speaking, so no sign of that changing.
A different Eric
9. Andrew Tetlaw
@ennead "The stunning final revelation" that's my favourite Egan moment, it was incredibly moving; brought a tear to my eye!
Graham Storrs
10. GrahamStorrs
What's wrong with being an ideas man? All the very best sci-fi writers have been. It's why I love the genre.

And you're right. He should be much bigger than he is. Much bigger.
Lou Anders
11. LouAnders
If I may...from an old Steve Martin routine:

"OK, I don't like to gear my material to the audience, but I'd like to make an exception, because I was told that there is a convention of plumbers in town this week—I understand about 30 of them came down to the show tonight—so before I came out, I worked up a joke especially for the plumbers. Those of you who aren't plumbers probably won't get this and won't think it's funny, but I think those of you who are plumbers will really enjoy this. This lawn supervisor was out on a sprinkler maintenance job, and he started working on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom seven-inch gangly wrench. Just then this little apprentice leaned over and said, 'You can't work on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom seven-inch wrench.' Well, this infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual, and he reads to him and says, 'The Langstrom seven-inch wrench can be used with the Findlay sprocket.' Just then the little apprentice leaned over and says, 'It says sprocket, not socket!'

[Worried pause.]

'Were these plumbers supposed to be here this show?'
A different Eric
12. Tom Parsons
Total agreement here. Egan is at the top of my list along with Stephenson and Vance and a few of the golden age writers. I'm an old fan at 63, and my 50+ years of Astounding/Analog (from 1946 on) is flaking away nearby as I write, alongside many shelf-meters of SF that I can't stand to part with. I know how the world forgets, and how un-available they will soon be..

I enjoy Egan's writing and respect him like I respect few other authors. Egan doesn't just use science for special effects, he *gets* it.

Egan can take the latest thoughts and discoveries from the cutting edge and build them into a story that plausibly and engagingly goes past that edge into the realm of "what next?"

But . . (there had to be at least one 'but', right?)

I wonder how exciting that deep understanding and accuracy can be for readers who don't know about quantum entanglement and its practical/philosophical consequences (Mitochondrial Eve), and who can't recognize a jaw-droppingly great description of the actual mechanism of consciousness (Mister Volition). For the great mass of readers, there's just as much entertainment in a nifty-name weapon or gee-whiz wish-fulfillment technique dreamed up by entertaining but techno-semi-literate writers like Hamilton and Asher.

Egan has tackled all the biggest questions I'm aware of, using the most sophisticated tools in the math/science arsenal. Egan really works at presenting the ultimate question: What are we, why do we bother, is there a better alternative? The fact that his answers seem equivocal to me is a function of his honesty and the fundamental difficulty of the question, imo.

Yet that very honesty precludes the upbeat triumphalist outlook and story conclusion that so many SF readers love (me included).

And talk about Australia being out-of-the-way! From where I sit in New Zealand, Perth is to Oz what Oz is to the rest of the world. [Yet as a lover of remote and beautiful places, I would have moved there once, myself, if the choice had been mine to make.]

But in line with the topic of the original post here, and stretching for anything negative that might possibly be said - After reading all the Egan I could lay my hands on I was left with an awareness of his frequent attention to and apparent emotional involvement with the plight of a gay man (especially in Australia?). I know nothing of Egan's personal life, but I find it hard to imagine that a straight man would produce such a high percentage of gay characters, so well drawn. But as sympathetic as I may be towards anyone who finds society hostile to his own just-as-good-as-theirs proclivities, this situation just isn't a part of my life. He handles it well, but I really can't care at a gut level about the issues. How much *can* one abstractly care about moral/social questions that don't really touch one's own life? I wonder if he is at a disadvantage in depicting a warmly believable heterosexual relationship.

That said, I would still shout GIVE ME MORE!! Egan is absolutely unique, and imo very valuable. Vastly underappreciated.

Also, I hope that Egan will eventually deal with a problem brought up many years ago by Ray Brown in a series of stories about the Reformed Sufi Church that appeared in Analog in the 1980s. The church's founding 'saint' was (quite secretly) unique in rejecting its teachings (which he had invented as a joke) and refusing to travel by matter transporter or (equivalently) to be uploaded (however briefly) into a silicon existence, even faced with a medical need for the body editing that could be done in silico. He regarded the in silico existence as Hell, because it could never contain the unknown, or the surprises provided by the universe we're born into, and because once in, one could never know whether one ever succeeded in leaving.

Clearly, those issues are Egan's meat. [to such a degree that I have even wondered whether Brown *was* the young Egan!]

I hope that he continues to find the courage to hold his soul against the grindstone of the deepest questions, and the motivation to communicate what he discovers to those of us who don't have his remarkable abilities.
A different Eric
13. annafdd
I have only a smattering of physics, and I got Wang's Carpet (although I do not remember it now). And I never understand people who say that Egan is dry and soulless - they obviously have a different definition of emotion than I, and I mean this literally.

Maybe this is the problem - Egan has the kind of mindset that makes the scene with the nurse in Distress weepworthy. And not everybody shares that mindset. It's a genuine difference in the way of interpreting the emotional/moral world. It helps to map it over the atheist/believer dichotomy, although I don't think the overlap is perfect. Us and Egan can't wrap our mind around the fact that religious people think that religion=morality, while religious people can't honestly understand how you can have morality without religious guidance. This is why Egan is not huge. Those who respond to him are a minority who thinks in very peculiar ways, and I'm not saying they are the right way, I'm just saying they are different.

I am not sure how well this maps on Altemeyer's authoritarian scale, but I'm willing to bet that there is a connection.

I must say that I am vaguely disturbed with the comparison to Vinge (Vernon). To me they have a completely different voice, and not only because I loathe Vinge and worship Egan. Vinge writes space opera. I can't even imagine Egan in the conceptual frame for space opera. OK, I also think Egan's prose is miles better than Vinge, but then I don't think there is much in common between Banks and Egan either, and nobody can accuse Branks of not being able to write. I found Vinge sentimental (in a faintly creepy way) and Egan is never sentimental.

BTW, my most favourite and most chilling story of Egan is - ahhh damn, I don't remember the title, but it's the one about the guy who volunteers to guide people toward the center of the black spheres that appear at irregular intervals. And I also came across him in Interzone, maybe with The Cutie but the first clear memory of him is "Reasons to be Cheerful", and I, too, subscribed to Interzone for years just on the strength of it. I didn't realize that most of the Interzone authors were not Egan, but then, most of us aren't.
ennead ennead
14. ennead
@annafdd I believe it's Into Darkness.

@Tom Parsons Egan broaches these issues (the magic marker on the hand in Permutation City, the androids in Schild's Ladder) but I agree that it would be very interesting to see these worlds from a purely human point of view.
Brian Eisley
15. brianeisley
I, personally, think the reason he's not a superstar is because he refuses to do any publicity for his books. He makes no public appearances. I've never heard of him leaving Perth. I haven't even been able to find a photograph of him--and I've tried.

That, combined with the facts that he deals with very big ideas and uses characters that are quite far from human, means he's never going to achieve the mass success that he deserves.

Or, as I like to say: Greg Egan is the Thomas Pynchon of SF.

b.
A different Eric
16. micheinnz
@brianeisley, I found pictures of him by a simple Google Images search on his name.

Egan is someone I've heard of but never read. I'll be sure to remedy that.
A different Eric
17. David S.
brianeisley @ 15: The Thomas Pynchon of SF, I like it! Hmm, even Pynchon did the Simpsons, maybe that's what Egan should try next.

But seriously, as noted he refuses to do publicity stuff--no book tours, no signings, even his website is no blog and has no reader feedback area nor any email address for fans to contact him. He's also very picky about blurbs on his books and how they are presented, etc. It's no wonder he's now with a small-press in the US (though still in the majors in Australia and Britain), he's a PR nightmare!

But really, to anyone who's not in the publishing game who cares? He's one of the best SF writers in decades and I don't give a rat's about all that PR crap anyway. As long as he keeps writing 'em I'll keep reading 'em. I'm currently half-way through Incandescence and am enjoying it.
Blue Tyson
18. BlueTyson
16.

You probably found pictures of _A_ Greg Egan, much like io9 did.

Note that he is not a retired Victorian university professor. :)
Blue Tyson
19. BlueTyson
13

That's an interesting religion/morality point.

The USA is very religious, while Australia is not at all, and neither is the UK too much either as far as I can tell.
A different Eric
20. annafdd
@ ennead - indeed it is, thank you.

@ various: long ago we tried to interview him. We found his email easily enough - it was on his site back then. He wrote back very politely and explained that he is not releasing interviews and would rather we did not use the old ones, because he objects to his personality in any way interfering with the fiction. He wants the fiction to speak for itself. He used to be on Usenet, and he still writes to New Scientist. I think he was also pretty active on the issue of asylum seekers and immigrants in Australia - indeed I believe one of the reasons he didn't write for a few years was that he was too take up by that.

He's a private person, but from what I understand for very thought-out and reasoned reasons.

@ Blue Tyson: I am not sure the US is more religious. There is certainly a different relationship with religion. I think the proportion of people who are religious in the same way as people are religious in the UK - in the way, say, Fred Clark is religious - is more or less the same: but there is a strong component of "identity religion", let's say.
Dominic Wellington
21. riotnrrd
I own several of Greg Egan's books, because every time I wrote him off in the past somebody would rave about some other book that I had not read. In the end I simply do not find his characters sympathetic, and that's without even getting into the _Permutation City_ "what in the name of all that's holy was he thinking?!?" moment (no details to avoid spoilers). _Diaspora_ was a bit more interesting, but in the end not much more appealing. It's all way too bleak, and I particularly dislike the implication that realistic post-human features *must* be that bleak.

Give me Charlie Stross any day for hard-science fiction. The ideas weigh heavily, but they are more than supported by the plot and characters.

Vinge I read eagerly, but don't return to that often. He just isn't top-shelf to me, not in the way that Stross, Hamilton or Stephenson are.
Joe Sherry
22. jsherry
I've only read Egan's recent nominated stories "Glory" and "Dark Integers".

Are those two stories representative in terms of style / quality of Egan's work?
Blue Tyson
23. BlueTyson
Somewhat, sure. He is extremely high quality, on average.
Randy Moore
24. jalingo
Now you've all done it. I'm going to have to read Permutation City! Always saw it on the shelves just didn't get it. I loved Diaspora so much it got me reading SF again. We'll that ended quickly as explained above - Egan's writing is the best - so anything else I picked up just didn't grab me the same. And I also feel he is very underrated.
Soon Lee
25. SoonLee
jsherry @22: Yes, in that they are well-written, contain big ideas and don't talk down to the reader.

I rate Egan highly as a writer, but I wouldn't read his stories unless I was prepared to invest some effort; his are not light fluffy reads.
Blue Tyson
26. BlueTyson
21

So if Egan is bleak, what do you call Stross' 'all humans are dead, it is just us sex robots left?' :)
Jeff Doten
27. Venusian
I think I'll read him now, BUT you make him sound like one of his own characters, and I'll take the book out of the library because of that uncertainty.
Allyn Edgar Hughes
29. allynh
Tom Parsons @12

Thanks for mentioning Ray Brown. I've almost finished getting all of his stuff. Once I've read them I suspect that they will go beside my collection of Phillip C. Jennings.

There are so many writers that can only be found in the old magazines, and no one will re-discover them because few have access to those brittle, fading, copies. There needs to be a real effort to have the magazines scanned by Google so that people can find those stories.

I wonder who else I've missed along the way.

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