I think I picked this one up because I was desperate for some new sci-fi, or at least a bit of escapism, which I don’t usually find when I barrelling through my ‘serious’ reading. An inapt choice of words there, because I treat fiction reading with the same expectations I have for non-fiction, in terms of diligence applied to the subject matter, and position on that taken. Which means if I’m reading sci-fi with a microbiological and feminist bent, I expect the author to have done their homework on both, and to exercise a little extrapolation, imagining what the future will arrive at based on the last hundred years or so of socio-political history.
It turns out I’ve read Egan before, and didn’t enjoy him. Lucky I had some Pratchett to fill in the weekend before dealing with this one, which at the beginning I enjoyed quite a bit, enough to think perhaps the other one I’d read was a dud. Sadly no.
There is a habit among some science-fiction writers, curiously enough those who are often described as ‘imaginative’ and ‘hard sci-fi’, in taking contemporary high-end consumer technology (iPad now, CD-ROM in the late ’90s, Fax in the ’70s, and so on) and transposing it relatively unaltered into the near-future. In this instance we have something written in the late ’90s, and set in 2012 where the protagonist has a wristwatch with GPS (ok, vaguely in smartphone territory), yet is also still using ROMs – and not for his Nintendo 3DS.
Even before the ’90s, when we started this accelerando, it was pretty obvious in sci-fi that if you didn’t want to sound laughably quaint you didn’t choose gee-wizz technology of the moment and pretend it’d still be relevant in even 10 years. It’s a bit like all the ‘dance and technology’ stuff of the past two decades which so often looks like a luddite got their hands on the controls, and demonstrates more the artist’s lack of understanding of not only the technology but its place and significance.
So we have this, which is irritating for me though I’ll let it pass with a wince if the rest is good. Alas, no.
It went off the rails for me after the very good first act, where the young Prabir flees the unpopulated Indonesian island with his baby sister after his scientist parents are killed by landmines. If the whole book had continued along like this I’d be off to buy more of Egan. Instead he decides to go off on some petty anti-post-modern philosophy bashing which adds sod-all to the story – and keeps dragging it back in via various irrelevant characters for the remainder of the book. (And I won’t say anything about the mansplaining Prabir does at the biologist Martha Grant later.)
In addition to the McGuffin at the centre of the story – a quantum, Many Worlds Interpretation virus that is causing a pandemic of rapid evolutionary weirdness – this falls into that category of ‘doing ones’ homework’. Or as the case is here, not.
Whereas someone like Joan Slonsczewski writes superficially similar works on microbiology and feminism in the near future, she does so without the need to shit on the corpus of philosophy – however horrible some of the po-mo stuff can be. Egon on the other hand seems to be of the opinion that if he can’t understand Derrida, it’s not because it’s difficult in the same way say quantum mechanics is difficult, rather it’s because Derrida is using “all them fancy big words an’ make me feel stupid an all,” or something. It’s the work of someone who holds science to be the central light against ignorance and superstition and yet commits both ignorance and superstition of, as well as lazy bigotry against philosophy.
The sad thing is politically I agree with him on quite a bit, from his stance on refugees in Australia which has only become ever more disgusting in the past decade, and I also love serious science in my sci-fi as well as with my breakfast. Somehow though his sniping at the ‘philosophers’ in the cast – who he’d already set up as caricatures – made me think more of those nasty radical separatist feminists on their essentialism trip who think erasing all male bodies from humanity is something to aspire to than any genuine scientist.