Reading: Greg Egan — Teranesia

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.

Reading: Joan Slonczewski – The Children Star

Finishing my triumvirate of Elysium Cycle novels, Joan Slonczewski’s The Children Star is the last but two of her books I’ve yet to read, though of those two, one is Microbiology – An Evolving Science for university students and I suspect I would enjoy it in the way a Magpie enjoys shiny things, if I could even afford it.

After Daughter of Elysium, I was desperately hoping for something substantial and compelling in this novel, as the former unfortunately is one of the least memorable science-fiction works I’ve read. As usual, my intent to write this before I begin reading has been thwarted, so I shall reveal that firstly, it’s pretty good, and (without having read The Wall Around Eden to be sure) it marks the beginning of Joan’s delicious weirdness in imagining alien microbial sentience, and secondly, I think I’ve met these microbes before.

Reading: Joan Slonczewski – Daughter of Elysium

The second of the three I acquired of Joan Slonczewski last Friday, Daughter of Elysium follows on from A Door into Ocean, but some thousand years or more later. Why am I reading it? Because it’s Joan of course.

And yes, these aren’t reviews, but I’m around half-way through, and somewhat disappointed. There is a particular quality in her writing that even in her best works feels somewhat unclear, as though she knows the story she is telling perfectly, but it doesn’t quite make it to the page. In her works that succeed, this is merely a background hint, but in Daughter of Elysium, it’s unfortunately very clear.

Perhaps it’s a mix of characters being too archetypal, and so failing to act outside these roles; at other times it’s their behaviour, for which I feel strangely excluded from their motivation. Also too, despite drawing elegantly from microbiology and genetics, the gap of nearly twenty years shows. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, as writing genuine science-fiction – that is, fiction which bases itself on plausible science – is the hardest genre to not become hopelessly, laughably old-fashioned or completely wrong in. Altogether this creates the uncanny air of reading something that doesn’t seem all that creative or inspired.

Not to worry, still only half-way, with another one yet unread, and it’s always worthwhile reading an author’s problem children. (And I still have a daunting pile of Cantonese and Chinese history to get through …)

Reading: Joan Slonczewski – A Door into Ocean

A special arrival on Friday: three books of Joan Slonczewski, who is now on my Illustrious List of Science Fiction Writers, alongside Charles Stross, Iain M. Banks, and China Miéville. And the first woman on the list too. Excellent!

It was Charlie who caused me to discover Joan, when she guest-blogged there, and The Highest Frontier was my book of the year last October. I since got through Brain Plague, and decided in the best tradition of gluttony that the only sensible course to follow was to acquire as many of her remaining books as quick as possible.

I also needed a small break from reading all things Canton.

My original idea in writing about what I was reading was to write before I began, so this would be a short document of my reasons and expectations for reading. Being a glutton, I finished this some time Saturday morning. Fie!

So, I write from behind.

I was somewhat anxious about this one, as aspects of Joan’s feminism as well her age places her squarely in 2nd wave territory, and all the nasty essentialist separatism that goes with it. Equally though, she is a Quaker and a microbiologist, and I would say both at very least annul any corporal nationalism inherent in a ‘feminist utopia’ based on separatism.

Still, A Door to Ocean was written in the latter days of that wave, and years before gender theory and people like Anne Fausto-Sterling, so I was prepared to experience sourness. Luckily not. It’s not as weirdly sublime as Brain Plague, but nonetheless has that same beauty, poignancy and glorious inventiveness, and characters whose personalities float around in my thoughts for weeks and months.

Reading: Joan Slonszewski – Brain Plague

I’ve already finished it.

Joan Slonczewski I discovered through Charles Stross, when she guest-blogged there, and her The Highest Frontier was my fiction book of the year this year. Getting hold of Brain Plague took longer than expected – much longer than reading it. I stopped in a café on the way home last night and began two hours there, devouring another third when I arrived in bed, and finishing it off in bits and pieces over the course of today.

A comparison with China Mievillé’s Embassytown comes to mind. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to hold off before ordering en masse the remainder of her books.