Greg Egan – Axiomatic (1995) review

8.5/10

Axiomatic gathers together 18 of Greg Egan’s first short stories, from the beginning of his writing career and most of them written in the early 1990s. Six of these 18 also appeared in the recent The Best of Greg Egan collection (2019), but look here: both collections have around 20 stories, but Axiomatic is about 300 pages and the Best Of collection is about 730 pages! Egan’s short stories doubled in length over time, but his earlier, shorter work was much stronger for me – more focused. And I think that Axiomatic is therefore the better collection.

Egan loves throwing the reader into crazy, unknown situations where the rules of physics don’t seem right. For example, we follow a character who casually mentions that a neighbourhood is flipping through alternate realities, or, say, that time is running according to the details that the main character put in their diary that morning, and we’re left wondering what the hell is going on. And only in a second chapter, Egan will casually throw us a line, like “Francis Chan wasn’t the first astronomer to hunt for time-reversed galaxies…” and that will be the start of some explanation. The rest of the story will then gradually make more sense. And once we are caught up, he will go ten steps further into the consequences of his little thought experiment to finish up the story.

So, the stories are heavily focused on ideas. The characters in these stories are not much more than first person narrators giving us chunks of their thoughts. But those thoughts are typically those of a scientist or of someone with a very rational, analytical way of thinking. For deep character studies and complex plots about power and politics, please look elsewhere. But if you are looking for mind-blowing scientific ideas that mess around with our physics, our perception and our sense of identity, then you’ve come to the right place. Many of these stories tackle topics like free will and determinism, consciousness, space-time anomalies, technology affecting our identity, and so on. We learn about the narrators, about their relationships and careers and what these sci-fi concepts do to them, as they relate their stories.

Egan’s writing is lean and efficient, but his voice as a writer is very one-dimensional. All narrators talk with the same affect, in that rational, analytical way. So, while the stories are all about the exploration of some sci-fi concepts, he sometimes glances over explanations that could have been a lot clearer, and he sometimes wraps up a story in a way that feels emotionally underdeveloped or unrealistic, when for example the reactions of side characters feel suddenly strange. As a consequence, for some stories I didn’t understand the point of them, meaning that I couldn’t pinpoint a central idea, or any other effect or message that Egan was aiming for. Maybe that’s on me. But Egan falls squarely into those preconceptions that people often bring with them when they think about science fiction: all about the ideas and the rest underdeveloped. 

Nevertheless, this is an exceptionally strong short story collection, judging on the sheer mind-blowing strength of the ideas. I guess I am saying all this not to criticise Egan too heavily but to warn readers of what to expect, especially because there are enough positive reviews out there that praise Egan’s work into the heavens. 

Contents:

  1. The Infinite Assassin (1991) ****
  2. The Hundred Light-Year Diary (1992) *****
  3. Eugene (1990) *** 
  4. The Caress (1990) ***
  5. Blood Sisters (1991) ***
  6. Axiomatic (1990) *****
  7. The Safe-Deposit Box (1990) *****
  8. Seeing (1995) ****
  9. A Kidnapping (1995) ****
  10. Learning to Be Me (1990) *****
  11. The Moat (1991) ****
  12. The Walk (1992) ****
  13. The Cutie (1989) ***
  14. Into Darkness (1992) *****
  15. Appropriate Love (1991) *****
  16. The Moral Virologist (1990) ***
  17. Closer (1992) ****
  18. Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies (1992) ****
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8 Responses to Greg Egan – Axiomatic (1995) review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    This sounds much more promising than his Best Of collection you reviewed earlier. The under 400 pages is a the biggest draw, hahahahaa 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    Ah darn it. Now I’ll have to buy this collection as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe. Maybe not. Most of the best stories in this collection are also found in the Best of collection. But for the score I wanted to regard this collection on its own, including those stories.

      Like

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