A few months ago, I read a review in Spectrum of Egan’s new book Incandescence. The plot sounded almost identical to his other book Diaspora.
Let me say at the outset that I enjoy Greg Egan’s books tremendously. He’s a rabid athiest but boy he spins an interesting science fiction yarn.
(Ironically, regarding Incandescence‘s release I was the one to inform the close friend that put me onto Egan in the first place). His is truly intense science fiction, with all sorts of theoretical models and high-order ideas that are delivered in such detail as to truly blur the line between science fiction and reality. Reality in terms of the likelihood of what he discusses arising in the future (near or far). He makes it believable.
His book Quarantine had a marvellous take on quantum physics, and was just a delight to read.
Having given this preamble, let me tell it like I see it. The plot of both Diaspora and, it would seem, Incandescence as well, is that after a gazillion years of existence, what used to be human beings are bored stiff.
[They used to be humans a gazillion years ago less 999,000 years. At that time, they decided death was for the birds, and proceeded to shake off their mortal coil by downloading their consciousnesses into a giant hive, or computer network ("polises"). This way, they were free to flit to and fro between experiences, choosing whether the idea of love means anything to them, choosing pleasure - complete autonomy over virtually everything they are, and everything they do and feel - for 'eternity'.
The ones who had some sense entered the Truth Mines and played with hyperadvanced geometric astrophysical theories or some such, applying their mental efforts to discovering the universe.
This to myself and a friend, sounded very similar to the prescribed life of a soul after life on Earth, free from bodies and continuing to exists with their full faculties inside G-d and the universe, able to witness galaxies up close and personal etc etc. The difference being is that G-d as the encompassing driver of this whole shebang we call existence apparently wants these souls to know IT, and as a result, experience unending pleasure through knowledge, like a spectator in a sporting venue, watching G-d reveal all Its genius and sparkling brilliance, receiving wave after wave of pleasure one gets from understanding. Hence I equated the Truth Mines with a Beth Midrash (study hall) experience, to the point where, when questioned what I have on that night by the aforementioned mutual Greg Egan admirer, I responded "I've got an hour or two in the Truth Mines this evening".]
Not all humans downloaded themselves of course, some chose to remain human.
The entities formerly known as humans are bored stiff because they feel they have nothing more to explore, nothing more to experience. They feel a sort of existential, experiential ennui that leads to boredom and depression, normally.
Now, in Diaspora, they explore and explore with a purpose – to find a way out of their universe or otherwise an ability to avoid destruction at the hands of one cosmological event or another, for eternity. In Incandescence they have nothing left to do. They know everything. However, an asteroid hits the planet and now a couple of scouts from the polises download themselves into robot forms and go off to investigate. This sees them making contact with that bunch of actual humans that slink around in the depths of the planet (where the asteroid hit). The humans take the scouts to the asteroid and in it they discover a race of intelligent spider-like creatures that have a problem. OK, besides their random unclear long-standing prophecy of impending doom (something also similar to Diaspora), the spider race don’t remember their history for some reason. They lost it. They don’t know where they came from, and they don’t know much about whatever was outside of their asteroid – they know little about anything.
Aha! Finally! Something to do! Say the former human entities. We can TEACH the spider guys stuff! Help them solve their mysteries! And maybe even work out from whence will come the aforementioned doom, and in what form (I have yet to read Incandescence, but having seen Ghostbusters, I’m going to have to go with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man).
But here’s my problem and my analogy. Egan proposes to solve or perhaps better, to salve the experiential boredom of the former human entities with – more and new experiences! What a novel idea. I used the term ennui before and I believe it is apt. The cure for ennui in its proper sense is not more sexual encounters, just as the ‘hair o’ the dog that bit you’ (more alcohol) will not cure a hangover. What happens when the story ends – the spider guys know everything now, thank you very much, and contribute to the psychological and – dare I use the term in this context – spiritual existence of their teachers. They give to each other like lovers. And then they part when they have no more to learn from one another. His is not a solution. Perhaps he saw this, and in order to spice things up, played the impending doom card.
I just feel that Egan’s callous dismissal of anything truly metaphysical or insufficiently explicable by science alone (“I thought people finally rejected the concept of God millennia ago” says one character in Diaspora to another) to be, well – rabid, adolescent-esque flippancy and essentially pathetic. The guy has nowhere ultimately to go when you rip the possibility of G-d out of the equation.
Either way, raving atheism aside (I managed to ignore it and thoroughly enjoy the books), if Incandescence still sounds good to you, I recommend reading Diaspora first. I don’t mind encouraging new readers by my ‘bad publicity’ at all. I think it’s great. Just read it in context. Know who the author is and see agendas for what they are. Science is often not agenda-free, yet many scientists hide behind their rigourous methodology and search of facts etc.
I love science, and I love Judaism and spirituality . But in my lifetime, G-d-willing, I aim to see both in their proper context and with eyes wide open.