Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sci Phi Show Greg Egan Overview - Matt Arnold

There's also an mp3 at :

Greg Egan Overview

From The Sci Phi Show podcast. MP3 link (21 minutes 59 seconds)
A photo used to be here, with a caption saying it “reportedly” depicted Greg Egan. I acquired it from a German webpage about him. It was actually a photo of a different person of the same name, and I have taken it down. To my knowledge, there are no available photographs of the author. I infer that is probably by his choice, and I respect that.

This episode will be a general survey of many of the works and themes of my favorite science fiction author, Greg Egan. His fiction exemplifies a crunchy technological coating with a chewy philosophical center. The mysterious Mr. Egan lives a famously reclusive life in Perth, Australia. He never comes to science fiction conventions to promote his work, and his fans don’t even know what he looks like. Another author, Karl Schroeder, once humorously speculated that this might be because Mr. Egan is secretly an artificial intelligence.

That certainly would explain why his speculations are so rigorously within the bounds of existing cutting-edge science. If you encounter paragraphs of extremely crunchy math and speculative physics in his novels, and find that you aren’t enjoying that passage, please, don’t let that stop you. Just skim forward past the passage if you have to, and you’ll still be rewarded by the story. His imagination has been described as a quadruple-decker ice cream sundae with a cherry on top, and another ice cream sundae balanced upside-down on top of that.

One of his major themes is an intense fear and loathing of postmodern relativism. In the mid-to-late 21st century he depicts, protests and acts of violence against science are common, academics, literature, and art have been destroyed from within, and new-age holistic confidence games are so prevalent that they actually cast down real medicine and cost lives. The stories “Silver Fire” and “Mitochondrial Eve” best exemplify this.

Egan’s novel Distress is my favorite. This is the first time I’ve seen anyone invent a whole new cosmology of the beginning of the existence of reality. I’m not referring to an easily-imagined fantasy mythology. Egan actually makes it seem plausible. Distress also includes a radical rethinking of gender, psychology, politics, and what it means to be “human” and “healthy”, the two most dangerous words.

Permutation City: Ten Million People On A Chip is a novel about new universes. Here’s the back cover text:
The good news is that you have just awakened into eternal life. You’re going to live forever. Immortality is a reality. A medical miracle? Not exactly..

The bad news is that you are a scrap of electronic code. The world you see around you, the you that is seeing it, has been digitized, scanned, and downloaded into a virtual reality program. You are a copy that knows it is a copy..

The good news is that there is a way out. By law, every copy has the option of terminating itself and waking up to normal flesh-and-blood life again. The bailout is on the utilities menu. You pull it down.

The bad news is that it doesn’t work. Someone has blocked the bailout option. And you know who did it. You did. The other you. The real you. The one that wants to keep you here forever.

Permutation City explores more thoroughly another of Egan’s major themes. If you simulate a person perfectly in a computer, right down to the last subatomic particle, is that simulation a person? Philosophically, if they can’t tell the difference, and by talking to them, we can’t tell the difference in them, how is that any less than what we already are?

These are uncomfortable questions which make for very tense plots. Viewers of the new “Battlestar Galactica” TV series are already familiar with these questions, but that show shies away from making viewers uncomfortable with mind-bending ideas. Egan has no such compunction. Do some mental calisthenics before Egan stretches byzantine ideas through the iris of your mind’s eye.

The novel Diaspora might be the culmination of that. This is a work about the expansion of a digital posthumanity and their backup copies throughout the galaxy and into virtual reality universes. Groups in Diaspora with different ideologies get to share their own private virtual reality universe in which to run the software of their minds however they wish. Or they send software copies of their minds to sleep for centuries on a chip traveling just under the speed of light, and rebuild themselves physical bodies on a star system all their own. Some groups believe it’s only moral to stay in flesh. Some believe it’s wrong to run multiple copies of their minds. Others occasionally leave virtual realities to inhabit robots as missionaries to try to persuade the fleshers not to let themselves die of old age. Others are solipsists, who treat the physical reality as if it doesn’t exist. There are countless other ideological variations. Each chapter of Diaspora has enough satisfaction to stand as its own story. In fact, chapter eight, “Wang’s Carpets”, has been printed that way.

In addition to the novels, here are two stories available on I like “Reasons To Be Cheerful”. The synopsis of this idea is: If you suffer brain damage, which parts could you replace with computational prosthetic and still be you?

Another story is “Cocoon”: What if tomorrow someone discovers a way to ensure that embryos grow heterosexual brains? Would that be anti-gay?

Here are some Greg Egan stories which are free online at the author’s website. The story “Border Guards” contains a view of death from the perspective of a civilization that hasn’t had anyone die in centuries.

I highly recommend “Oceanic”. In this short novella, a scientist on another planet discovers a biological basis for his religion. There is another noteworthy thing dropped into the background setting of the story, without being relevant to the main plot thread. That is the unique biological engineering that his species appears to have undergone to promote gender equality. This is a family podcast, so I won’t describe it, but it’s quite imaginative. And no, it’s not what you’re thinking.

My favorite free story, for strictly personal reasons, is “Oracle”. What if Alan Turing, the Father of Computers, had survived, and met C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia? Despite the pseudonyms used in “Oracle”, it’s clear the story is about these historical figures. For those as familiar as I am with the science fiction writings of C.S. Lewis, such as the Out of the Silent Planet trilogy in which he pillories the modern world, or The Great Divorce, describing Lewis’ vibrant and attractive speculations on the afterlife, the ending of “Oracle” has a powerful emotional resonance. In addition to being free online, “Oracle” was printed in Galileo’s Children: Tales of Science and Superstition.

In “The Planck Dive”, a posthuman poet joins a colony of software minds diving into a black hole. The poet does this in an attempt to give their scientific experiment “meaning” by describing it with mythopoeic archetypes. During the story another character attempts to refute him by saying about mythopoeic archetypes,
They’re the product of a few chance attractors in Flesher neurophysiology. Whenever a more complex or subtle story was disseminated through an oral culture, it would eventually degenerate into an archetypal narrative. Once writing was invented, they were only ever created deliberately by Fleshers who failed to understand what they were. If all of antiquities’ greatest statues had been dropped into a glacier, they would have been reduced to a predictable spectrum of spheroidal pebbles by now. That does not make the spheroidal pebble the pinnacle of the art form. What you’ve created is not only devoid of truth, it’s devoid of aesthetic merit!

Doubtless that character was speaking for the author in saying that, because it’s as good a summary as any of Greg Egan’s way of writing. Imbuing his stories with beauty, enjoyment and inspiration does not require contradicting the laws of science in his fiction, or introducing any supernatural element. His visions manage to fit within that window of future possibility which science has not yet disproven. This has settled for me the worries about the conflict between truth and beauty, which were expressed by the poet John Keats and his contemporaries. Keats wrote about science in his poem “Lamia”, in 1820:
Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine–

Unweave a rainbow…

Compare the posthumanist works of Greg Egan, when you’ve read them, to the imagination of C.S. Lewis. Lewis gave us amazing visions of God’s heaven, in which we could run up waterfalls, change bodies, and live happy for centuries. What impresses me about the posthuman worlds of Greg Egan is that in a world where none of his characters can violate the speed of light, and there isn’t any god that can violate the speed of light either, this rigorously dispassionate and objective universe still contains so much possibility, and so much to live for. He demonstrates the poet Keats was wrong: there is no shortage of wonder in the real world. We can hope for all of these things without abandoning rational materialism. The world of science and technology reveal the real-life universe to be a bigger and better place than any tribal holy book ever even considered.

It’s rare to find strongly articulated intellectual philosophies about the meaning of life and the human condition– or in this case, the posthuman condition– combined so seamlessly with strong talents at prose, characterization, plot and setting. Greg Egan could be the most brilliant visionary of our time, tuned into the meaning of life as it is, and as it could be.

4.5 out of 5

No comments:

Post a Comment