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Axiomatic May 22, 2011

Posted by futurewired in Greg Egan, Hard Sci-Fi, Reviews, Short Fiction.

The short story collection Axiomatic is the first work by Greg Egan I’ve read and I must say I’m intrigued. I was after some good ‘hard’ science fiction and Egan’s name came up so I thought this would be a good way of checking him out. After a couple of these high concept short works I was hooked.

Identity is a common theme in a lot of these stories, helped along by a solid helping of time travel, quantum immortality and mind uploading, and the science behind it all is delivered in a pretty credible way. It’s high concept stuff, each story focusing primarily on one idea, exploring it just enough to draw out some interesting conclusions, then throwing a few twist endings into the mix. I’m just going to talk about a couple of them here but the whole collection is worth a look.

In the Infinite Assassin a drug allows users to travel between parallel universes, creating a lethal whirlpool of shifting realities in the process. The titular protagonist is tasked with eliminating the user before cataclysmic results ensue, an infinite number of versions of the individual converging on the same point in parallel universes. He consciously identifies himself as being the ones that survive each encounter; in a sense that’s not just wishful thinking but the only possible approach, the only continuity that can exist is by definition between the successful iterations. It also makes for a gripping story and sets the tone for the rest of the book, with a dramatic conclusion based on set theory which might be a first.

The interplay between individual identity and multiple iterations is repeated in The Safe-deposit Box, and in Learning to Be Me. In the former, in a set up reminiscent of Quantum Leap, an individual wakes up every day as a different person, always the same age, in the same town, and in the latter an artificial back up to the brain, nicknamed the jewel, is implanted in the skull, synchronising experiences to take over when senescence kicks in. Subjectivity, continuity of the self are the themes, but it’s the details that really make these stories, such as what it’s like to grow up when everything about you, your family and your home appears to change day after day.

There are some really unsettling elements too, in the reveal of the protagonist’s real circumstances in The Safe-deposit Box, and even more so in The Caress; featuring an artificially created human-cheetah hybrid. Another believable but creepy idea comes from The Cutie; artificially created pseudo babies. With a lifespan limited to four years and an intelligence level that peaks below a dog’s, they seem a worryingly plausible successor to those real-doll babies you get.

There are a couple of stories that don’t work quite as well. The Moral Virologist is a somewhat heavy handed tale of a fundamentalist Christian who devotes his career to developing a virus inspired by AIDS to kill those he sees as immoral; it’s clunky and a bit predictable. Appropriate Love is another that doesn’t quite gel for different reasons; telling the story of a woman who carries her husband’s brain in her uterus after his body is damaged in an accident, until a new one can be cloned, it has some interesting ideas, drawing on feminist arguments on choice, criticisms of corporate medicine as well as the experience of surrogacy but it just doesn’t quite work for me.

That’s the nature of short fiction though of course, it’s the perfect way to explore different ideas, different possibilities, both in their own right, and as the testing ground for longer works. Some will work out, others not so much, when the standard of writing is this high and the ideas both original and challenging, the results are definitely worth it.

I can’t really say how this collection works as an introduction to Greg Egan’s writing yet; I’m going to give one of his novels a go (any suggestions as to which one gratefully received!) so I guess I’ll let you know!

As usual here’s a link to some of his fiction online.




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