Alan's Reviews > Incandescence

Incandescence by Greg Egan
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's review
Sep 26, 2010

liked it
Recommended to Alan by: Previous work and a back-pages ad in another Night Shade Press book
Recommended for: Hard SF fans

Greg Egan's science fiction is hard, hard, hard—it is "hard sf," usually as rigorous as Egan can possibly make it, which can make it hard to read without footnotes or a background in the hard sciences. And, sometimes, it's hard to like.

Incandescence is a textbook example of all three kinds of hard—the textbook in this case being something like Rediscovering Classical and Relativistic Physics. If extended descriptions of orbital mechanics and exposition about f=ma, thinly leavened with characterization, are your thing, then this novel will certainly satisfy. If the late Hal Clement and Robert L. Forward's works are proudly displayed on your bookshelf, then this novel should be right between them (and not just due to alphabetical order!).

I did enjoy it. Roi, the viewpoint for half the book, is relatively warm and memorable as the initially reluctant physicist on the Splinter—itself a fine example of Egan's worldbuilding skills. And the interplay between Rakesh and Parantham, citizens of the cosmopolitan Amalgam whose voyage of discovery makes up the other half of the novel, works well too.

Egan's physical inventiveness always impresses, too, both on the largest scales and the small. For example, this thrown-away bit (not referred to anywhere else in the book, at least as far as I could tell) could spawn a whole dystopian series... since it's not referring to a metaphor:

She smiled. "Do you dream, Rakesh?"
"Then draw up a list of topics for your dream censor. We wouldn't want the Aloof getting the wrong idea."

If the idea of a literal "dream censor" with a list of blacklisted topics doesn't make you shudder... well, I just hope that one never turns into reality, myself, despite having had some pretty unpleasant dreams.

But... Egan's characters really are pretty thin, this time, and their voices almost drowned out by the effort of describing what's going on around them. At his best, Egan is still a cold writer, his strengths more in the intricate working-out of scientific implications than in human interest. Some authors can manage both, at least when given the space—see Neal Stephenson's sprawling success story Anathem for one. Incandescence is more limited both in size and appeal. Which doesn't mean it's bad, not at all; there's room in the world for such works. It's just that a bit of caveat lector seems in order this time.

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