Monday, 21 October 2013

Incandescence Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Incandescence by Greg Egan

Sometimes a nerd just needs some hard Science Fiction in their life. You know, the kind of hard Science Fiction that you collide with inelastically, imparting your momentum to it and being left, stalled and thoughtful. The kind of hard Science Fiction that demands metaphors about momentum, forces, and energy transfers. I'm talking about really, really hard Sci-fi.

Incandescence by Greg Egan is exactly that kind of diamond hard Sci-fi.

Incandescence follows Rakesh, a child of DNA, living in the Amalgam, a galaxy spanning polity filled with the immensity of the diversity of countless civilizations and species. A chance encounter with an enigmatic alien with a proposition breaks Rakesh out of his ennui and sends him into the domain of the Aloof, a super-reclusive alien species native to the galactic centre. A trip to the galactic core that turns into a quest to discover a long lost species completely unknown to the Amalgam.

Incandescence also features Roi, a member of that lost race, who is a humble tender of crops in a society built around labour and maintaining a precarious status quo. That is until she meets Zak, an elderly male with unorthodox ideas, who will lead Roi down a path of Scientific, Mathematic, and cultural enlightenment. In the face of an environmental disaster that threatens their very civilization, Roi, Zak, and their burgeoning thought system must grow to a full Scientific Revolution if their species is to survive.

Incandescence is one very, very smart novel. Against some pretty engaging character work, truly alien civilizations, and some pretty exciting storylines are some heady, brilliant concepts. For me, the most remarkable thing about Incandescence is that it constructs a Scientific philosophy in an entirely different context than our own. It imagines developing classical Physics in a completely different place, with an entirely different context and perspective to arrive at natural laws. A perspective that drives an entirely novel way of looking at math, basic Physics, and Science in general. It is endlessly fascinating to look at and it really hammers home just how much of our Science reflects the context of their discovery and the types of observations we make. It's astonishing stuff.

I would recommend Incandescence to anyone who loves smart, hard Science Fiction. If you've ever complained about godawful, implausible Science in a Sci-fi novel, this is the book for you. That said, this is a novel that quickly throws a lot of ideas at you and is written by someone who is clearly very, very smart. As such it demands a lot of thought from readers. So it might not be the best choice for light reading or for people who like their fiction accessible and effortless. Incandescence is a book you get out of what you put into it, so if you are at all inclined, do yourself a favour and invest in it.

(Also, if you are Sci-fi fan who has a serious interest in the Philosophy of Science, Incandescence is a must read. It really asks some really interesting questions about the formative norms of Science and the role of observation in driving hypothesis formation.)

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