What I’m reading: Greg Egan – Diaspora

Okay, so I’m only about two thirds into this book – but then I told you this weren’t reviews, didn’t I?

So, without further ado…

Greg Egan, Diaspora

cover scanThis author was recommended to me by Lady Asertine; I can’t quite remember why I settled on ordering this one from his books (it was originally released in 1997), but even though the science here is way over my head, I’m having a blast with it, and it’s probably not going to be the last one by him I’ll be reading.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a humanity that has split into three branches: the fleshers (more or less traditional though in some cases nanotech-enhanced biological beings), the gleisners (human minds in robotic bodies) and most notably the citizen of what are called polises (digitized entities existing in virtual environments – I found it rather hard not to think of those as sort of the evolved version of Second Life citizens).

It are the citizens of one polis that embark on the title-giving diaspora after a cosmic catastrophe has wiped out the fleshers living on Earth, and the novel basically follows them in their century-long exploration on a ever-widening scale (it starts off with a single consciousness inside a single polis, and progresses to a large casts of characters traversing universes). In a sense this is classical “hard” science fiction, meaning you get lots and lots of cutting-edge science, and not a terrible lot of character development and plot. Unlike with most hard SF though, the latter is actually not a bug but a feature – after all, most of the protagonists of this novel are virtual beings that can re-program themselves at will, and it is very debatable whether those can be considered to have a psychology or a character at all. To a degree, that is reflected in the writing – while Egan is not what you’d call a brilliant stylist, the writing, as everything else in this book, is informed by his keen intelligence, and very deliberate – he studiously avoids the use of any metaphors or thought-processes that would be alien to entities who never existed in the flesh, and lets them creep in only when writing from the perspective of fleshers or gleisners. Egan doesn’t really succeed in making us experience the mindset of far-future humans (the only one I could think of right away who pulled off something like that sucessfully is Samuel R. Delaney), but at least he does manage to distance them from us sufficiently to not let us forget how alien his characters are to us.

This pretty much ensures that you won’t get any warm, fuzzy feelings while reading Diaspora – even as the stakes are raised and humanity’s fate hangs in the balance, it remains a detached and somewhat cold experience. This is also enforced by the largely episodic structure of the novel – no comfy narrative here, no single plot line; instead, you get a multitude of viewpoints, locations and incidents that don’t form a coherent whole and are entirely appropriate to the novel’s vast scope and the bright and brilliant firework of ideas it burns off.

And this of course where the novel’s ultimate appeal lies, at least for someone like me, who can appreciate over-the-top science even if she doesn’t understand a thing of what it’s about, and can squee in delight at things like wormholes that not only have colour, but flavour, too. It’s said that a sufficiently advanced technology would appear like magic to the uneducated, and in a similar phenomenon, in Diaspora advanced science becomes indistinguishable from sheer surrealism.

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