Since the beginning of the 1990s, Greg Egan has been quietly producing the most mind-blowing science fiction you could imagine. Not being the kind of guy who puts himself in the spotlight (he’s known for keeping himself away), and his stories being the hardest of the hard science fiction, he may not enjoy the name recognition of some space opera writers, but his work is miles ahead, decades ahead, of most competition when it comes to futuristic concepts. He easily matches whatever Neal Stephenson or Charles Stross come up with and then goes a few steps further, and packages it in short, economically written stories that also have the elegance, humanity and lateral thinking of Ted Chiang.
For this collection, which was first published by Subterranean Press, Egan himself was asked to select his own best or favourite stories from three decades of short story writing. In the process of selection, Egan hit upon a theme that returned again and again in his work, and began selecting for this theme for the collection, and he describes it this way:
“…the struggle to come to terms with what it will mean when our growing ability to scrutinise and manipulate the physical world reaches the point where it encompasses the substrate underlying our values, our memories, and our identities.”
Egan then refers to the books written by neurologist Oliver Sacks, who showed us the stark materiality of our perception, personality and identity. If damage or developmental alterations to the brain cause people to change their personality, become savants in some areas, lose the concept of “left” or mistake their wife for a hat, then that completely destroys the idea of our self as some indivisible whole, disembodied from the brain. The twenty stories in this collection are all about technology messing around with that self, and more personally, what it does to the narrators of the stories.
Stories from Axiomatic (1995):
- 01. Learning to Be Me (1990) *****
- 02. Axiomatic (1990) ****
- 03. Appropriate Love (1991) *****
- 04. Into Darkness (1992) *****
- 05. Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies (1992) ****
- 06. Closer (1992) ****
Stories from Luminous (1998):
- 07. Chaff (1993) ****
- 08. Luminous (1995) ****
- 09. Silver Fire (1995) ***
- 10. Reasons to be Cheerful (1997) *****
Stories from Oceanic (2009):
- 11. Oceanic (1998) ****
- 12. Oracle (2000) ***
- 13. Singleton (2002) ****
- 14. Dark Integers (2007) ****
- 15. Crystal Nights (2008) ****
Stories from Instantiation (2020):
- 16. Zero For Conduct (2013) ***
- 17. Bit Players (2014) ****
- 18. Uncanny Valley (2017) ****
- 19. 3-adica (2018) ****
- 20. Instantiation (2019) ****
Most of these stories are written in first-person perspective, and follow the mental, emotional struggles of a narrator coming to terms with disruptive nano-, neuro- or biotechnologies. Egan’s style is not particularly beautiful to me, but thoughtful and intelligent. He adapts his style to how much introspection or to how much tension he wants to create, and can throw the unexpected hard-hitting turn of phrase. I can easily understand if his writing style would not work for you. He writes with a relentless logic and introspection. Some of the stories get so caught up in physics that they become hard to follow and even storytelling itself gets a back seat. If you are looking for characters to fall in love with or complex plots, then his writing may not be for you.
Egan has an eye for personal, emotional dilemmas and disruptive societal changes as a result of new technologies. Stories are, for example, about someone who develops a phobia for uploading his brain, or someone who buys an implant to give himself the fortitude to commit a crime, or a woman whose husband needs a cloned body after an accident, but she needs to carry his brain in her womb for two years while the cloned body grows. All of these choices are personal struggles, sometimes with shocking unintended side-effects that only Egan can come up with. They have to do with how we relate to our loved ones, or to our memories, or to our body.
Many of the stories hit me on a visceral level, awaking existential fears that I didn’t even know I had. The first-person narrators often dive into worries and changes of perception that awaken feelings of claustrophobia and alienation. What impresses me the most is the sheer variety of roads that Egan explores for the human experience to be impacted by technology. The collection shows that the territory is vast.
They are all clever and all worth reading. Going through them chronologically, the stories increase in page count, get meatier, but not necessarily better than the shorter ones from the early 90s. The shorter ones tend to have more unity and a bigger impact. Many of the longer stories follow characters over a longer stretch of their lives, or follow some experiment that they are doing, and these were less compelling to me. In some of these longer ones, Egan picks fragments of a person’s life and sticks those together in a loose narrative, sometimes making wild speculative jumps on barely explained notions, only to have it end with barely a resolution. In these cases, the personal journey of the character takes a backseat to the experiment or concept that the story follows, and while this was always intellectually stimulating, the stories as a whole felt less satisfying. There is a bonus, though, in that some of the longer stories are connected, sharing the same universes.
This is not a collection to rush through. You wouldn’t eat a whole box of bonbons in one go, would you? Would you. Egan’s stories are at least 80% cacao anyway. For myself I figured out that I prefer my short stories softer and milkier, like those of RA Lafferty or Cordwainer Smith. The collection comprises about a third or a fourth of all the short stories he has written to date, so unless you would like to read all of his collections, this one represents a sizeable chunk of his best work and could be the choice for you. I’ll be reading the rest of the Axiomatic collection now, because those shorter, earlier stories appealed to me the most.