Friday, May 28, 2010

Greg Egan - David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

Introduction to the story Wang's Carpets, in The Hard SF Renaissance :-

"Greg Egan (born 1961) is the most prominent SF writer from Australia on the world stage. He has a degree in mathematics and has worked as a computer programmer, mostly in jobs supporting medical research. He remains socially isolated from the SF field — almost no one in the field has met him in person — and he has written a strongly worded attack on national identities in SF. He does not identify himself as an Australian SF writer, but as a writer of SF in the English language who happens to live in Australia. His Web site (˜gregegan) reprints several interviews that yield some further insight into Egan, perhaps the most interesting hard SF writer to emerge in the 1990s. He says, “I have a vision of a universe that we’re increasingly able to understand through science — and that includes understanding who we are, where we came from, and why we do the things we do. What drives me is the desire to explore both the details of this vision, for their own sake — things like quantum mechanics and cosmology, simply because they’re beautiful and elaborate and fascinating — but also the ways in which we can adapt to this situation, and use what we’re learning constructively.” And “I don’t think SF will ever be enough, but it’s the easiest place to start examining new technologies, a few decades (or centuries, sometimes) before anyone else is discussing them.”

His first novel (not SF) was published in 1983. His SF writing burst into prominence in 1990 along with several fine stories that focussed attention on his science fiction and launched his books. His SF novels to date are Quarantine (1992), Permutation City (1994), Distress (1995), Diaspora (1997), Teranesia (1999), and Schild’s Ladder (2001), a disaster novel on a cosmic scale. His short story collections are Our Lady of Chernobyl (1995), Axiomatic (1995), and Luminous (1999).

“Wang’s Carpets” first appeared in editor Greg Bear’s flagship SF anthology, New Legends (1995) (which, along with Far Futures [ed. Gregory Benford], was one of the two most ambitious and important original anthologies of the decade for hard SF). It is one of Egan’s finest stories to date. Though “Wang’s Carpets” is most memorable for the image of a naturally-occurring computer program in which exists virtual life, this is contrasted with a solipsistic transhumanity: nearly immortal post-humans who search the universe for non-human intelligence because their survival depends on finding that the universe is not just all about them. Identity and gender are changed at will; physical appearance is manifested at will. Their identities have become so fluid that they search for an Other to define themselves in opposition to.

Stories such as this seem far beyond the political issues of today, though Egan is not apolitical. Egan said, “When I write about the far future, I’m not interested in pretending that all our current problems — things like disease, poverty, war and racism — are going to be with us for the next ten thousand years. Human nature is a physical thing, and eventually we’ll transform it as much as we like. But those ‘temporary’ problems are still enormously important to us, right now. So, although I’ve written a couple of short stories since Diaspora which share the idea that in the long run we’ll find software the most convenient form — especially for space travel — I’m backing off now, and concentrating on the near future.”

There is a literary politics implicit in the subtext of “Wang’s Carpets”: The solipsism of what remains of humanity might be seen to stand in for the post-modern/post-structuralist lit-crit point of view that the world as we perceive it, and even science, is a symbolic construct of language; it’s contrasted here to the scientific stance that there is a real universe out there to which words must refer and which they can only in part represent — mathematics is the foundation of science. Being a hard SF writer, Egan of course comes down on the side of science."

4 out of 5

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