Book: Luminous - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: Luminous
Monday, 10 November 2008 at 12:07 am
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Author: Greg Egan

Details: (c) 1998 Greg Egan; Pub 2003 Gollancz; ISBN 1-85798-573-7

Verdict: Luminous is somewhat lacklustre, though it has its cute moments.

Reasons for reading it: I have liked a lot of Egan's other stuff, particularly short stories.

How it came into my hands: cartesiandaemon lent it to me.

Most of Luminous is based around the theme of positing a fairly plausible technology that would cause trouble for standard accepted ideas about identity and personhood. There are two problems with this: firstly takling about the nature of what makes people who they are needs at least as much biology as physics, and Egan tends to be weaker on the biology side. (Or maybe I'm just pickier; his biology isn't outrageously awful, but not convincing to a professional biologist either.) Secondly, reading so many rather similar stories together tends to show up their flaws, and just doesn't have the variety I'd hope for. The speculation would be interesting in a single story, but the combination creates an atmosphere of rather sophomoric philosophizing, not helped because Egan tends to write IC sophomoric philosophical discussions in order to infodump his ideas.

I think if I were going to pick one story and not have it diluted by so many variations on a theme, I would go for Reasons to be cheerful. Its starting point is something like an extreme version of real world depression, and it's movingly written. I had time for the real world concern that if crude adjustments to neurotransmitter levels can totally alter a person's attitude and outlook on life, can that medicated depressive go on believing in free will; this feels less like a question made up for the purpose of having a debate than some of the topics. Also, it's very sympathetically written, and I could very much relate to the narrator there. Another recurring theme in this collection is the use of really unpleasant people as viewpoint characters; perhaps Egan felt it would be a challenge to get the reader to sympathize with cold-blooded killers and so on, or else that these narrators would give an illuminating outsider's view of the imagined future society. I quite enjoyed this approach in the first story of the collection, Chaff, but again, it comes up too many times, so having a sympathetic yet not Mary Sue-ish narrator was a nice break from that.

Cocoon and particularly Silver fire feel too polemical to work as stories. Cocoon has some thought-provoking elements, but it's a bit too unsubtle in making the point that a profit-based pharmaceutical industry may be willing to stir up bigotry in order to provide a cure for normal human variation. Silver fire is little more than a fictional version of Dawkins' rant about how terrible it is that some people believe in religion, astrology and other irrational ideas. This goes in the same category as The moral virologist which I consider the one weak story in Axiomatic. It's completely reasonable for Egan to be upset about the political response to the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, but he seems to write less well when he's caught up in rants about how evil that was.

The title story and the last in the book, The Planck drive, are much more classic Egan. Luminous postulates alternative mathematical systems in different parts of the universe, and has some very nice thriller elements framing the story of the scientists who discover this. The Planck drive feels like a cross between Diaspora and Schild's ladder, and has a classic short story twist in the ending. Though my eyes glazed over at the physics a bit; I'm not really prepared to put mental effort into understanding counterintuitive theoretical physics when I don't know how much of it is real, how much is completely made up to serve the story, and how much is speculative but plausible.

One element I did really like is the near-future atmosphere of many of the stories. There is a lot of cool technology on the peripheries of the story, not just the main invention that drives the plot, and some nice glimpses of how society might be shaped by these inventions. I liked the bioengineered jungle in Chaff and lots of the imagined surveillance equipment used to solve several of the framing mysteries, which succeeds in feeling near-magical without being over-powered.

This probably comes across harsher than I mean; my overall verdict is that the collection is competent, but falls short of brilliance.


Whereaboooots: Sydney
Moooood: disappointeddisappointed
Tuuuuune: Of Montreal: Disconnect the dots
Discussion: 4 contributions | Contribute something
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:December 2nd, 2008 11:21 pm (UTC)
17 days after journal entry, 07:21 pm (rysmiel's time)
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papersky once described Egan talking about religion as like watching world-class heavyweight shadowboxing, and I think there's something to that.

Egan's been good at having nice incidental bits of near-future tech in ever since Quarantine, IMO.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:December 3rd, 2008 12:43 pm (UTC)
17 days after journal entry, 12:43 pm (livredor's time)
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Shadowboxing, yeah, I could see that. I just find it annoying when polemic gets in the way of a story, even if it's polemic I basically agree with. (Christian organizations that try to influence health policy to get gay people killed are pretty evil, yes, but I don't want to read a story saying "evil evil evil!!!!! down with religion!") I haven't read Quarantine, in fact.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:December 3rd, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
17 days after journal entry, 07:40 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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I also found Luminous not quite as jaw-dropping as Axiomatic. (Of course, the flip side of that is that by the time I read Luminous, I had already read Axiomatic, and raised the bar thereby.)

I don't really remember much of most of the individual stories—it's eight years since I read this book—but I do remember some general impressions, such that I wasn't too impressed, IIRC, by the thriller frame to "Luminous". (It's a fault Egan has, not doing a job job finding a hook to get readers reading. He does it again, even worse, at the start of his novella "Oracle", which opens with Alan Turing completely gratuitously imprisoned in a tiger cage.) The central conceit of "Luminous" itself, however, did impress me: The thought that mathematics could be different had never crossed my mind beforehand.

I was also very impressed by "Reasons to be Cheerful".

The Planck drive feels like a cross between Diaspora and Schild's ladder,

Except that it antedated the latter; it looks to me as if it's the result of his brain not being done with Diaspora after writing it. I like that story a lot.

and has a classic short story twist in the ending. Though my eyes glazed over at the physics a bit; I'm not really prepared to put mental effort into understanding counterintuitive theoretical physics

Heh: it shows the direction of my teenage interests in that I had no trouble following it (von Neumann ("You never really understand mathematics, you just get used to it") and whoever it was* that said if you think you understand quantum mechanics, it shows you haven't really understood it, notwithstanding).

* Googling gave me a whole bunch of different potential originators.

when I don't know how much of it is real, how much is completely made up to serve the story, and how much is speculative but plausible.

I think, IIRC, it's all real apart from the last few pages. (Certainly my response on reading it was "but where are the tendrons?" Given that the Planck scale is as much smaller than than the atomic as the atomic is below ours, it's unlikely (as I think it may have been rysmiel who originally pointed out to me) that there's going to be nothing in the intervening levels. In my story ("Transhuman Pyramid", I don't think you've read it), I populated that gap; Egan, however, chose not to; which is the price of his greater hard-physics realism.)

The other story in the collection that really knocked by socks off was "Transition Dreams".

I think I'd have to skim-read the book again to give you more detailed comments than these, and my mind's not up to it at the present.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:December 4th, 2008 11:26 am (UTC)
18 days after journal entry, 11:26 am (livredor's time)
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These are really interesting comments, thanks. And I'm impressed you remember anything at all after eight years. I agree with you that the collection suffers by comparison to Axiomatic.

I wasn't too impressed, IIRC, by the thriller frame
Yeah, that's the name for what I was rambling about with the serial killer protagonists and such. The scene where he wakes up in the middle of surgery at the beginning of Luminous is very dramatic, the others were just annoying frames and I wanted the story to get to the point.

The thought that mathematics could be different had never crossed my mind beforehand.
I think that when nerdy teenager lethargic_man was keeping up with the cutting edge of modern physics, nerdy teenager me was reading an awful lot of popular mathematics. So I was perfectly comfortable with the idea of alternate mathematical realities, but I think this story explored the consequences particularly well.

The other story in the collection that really knocked by socks off was "Transition Dreams".
That felt rather mannered to me, like a kind of parody of the short story disturbing twist. I didn't hate it, but it annoyed me by having more cleverness than point.

I hope you feel better, anyway.
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