The failed promises of immortality offered by both religion and science play a part in the two Greg Egan stories reviewed here.
In "The Planck Dive" (Asimov's, 02/98), the quest for knowledge, and the possibility of finding an escape from the ultimate end of the universe, inspires a group of scientists - residing as sentient software in an "exopolis" called Cartan - to take a trip into a black hole. The story's main protagonist - Gisela - wants to understand the universe "at its deepest level". Just before the journey is scheduled to start, Cartan is visited by a father and daughter from Earth, ostensibly to witness the dive. What their motives really are propels the tale's narrative tension, but the star of the story is the physics of how a journey could be made into a black hole, and what kind of discoveries might be made there before the travellers are almost certainly crushed to death. Did I say "almost"? That's the other rub here; there is always the possibility that the travellers may be able to find a way to survive the journey.
As with Egan's articles in the paper version of Eidolon magazine, I found a lot of the physics beyond me. Parts of it I can grasp, if tenuously, but most of the time I feel like a congenital idiot who's stumbled into a Mensa convention. However, this isn't the hurdle it may seem. Egan has the knack of making his characters discuss the science with an almost carnal excitement, and though full understanding eludes me, the enthusiasm is contagious, an enthusiasm sustained by the incredibly rich and complex future he portrays so casually.
A problem faced by any writer setting a story in a future as strange as that in "The Planck Dive" is emotional and cognitive anachronism. Surely beings so physically and mentally advanced on Homo sapiens as Gisela and pals would no longer think as we do? And who could possibly predict what emotions they would feel? Indeed, if these beings were no longer organic in any chemical sense, how could they feel anything? I'm not suggesting an author of Egan's skill could not write a story in such a way that those intellectual and emotive processes seemed truly alien, but then what connection could his readers, mundane humans one and all, make with the story and its characters?
Of course, the answer to the conundrum is that Egan, as well as other good SF writers, use the genre to put across ideas, not realities. For all their cosmetic strangeness, Egan's characters in "The Planck Dive" are still essentially human as we understand that term, and this is where Egan's strength as a writer really comes to the fore. His future convinces because Egan keeps open that connection between his characters and us, while at the same time exploring ideas so startling they take your breath away.
If "The Planck Drive" left me breathless at the possibilities revealed, however little understood, "Oceanic" (Asimov's, 08/98) left me gasping. The qualitative difference stems from the fact that this future, equally detailed and cleverly thought out, plays second fiddle to the characters, human descendants (though themselves no longer quite human) inhabiting an alien planet, and who are facing severe challenges to the religious and scientific certainties they hold dear.
At the start of the story, Martin experiences a religious experience that stiffens his faith and changes the course of his life. His faith is a constant source of strength and comfort to him. Nonetheless, his life experiences and an internal need to be honest with himself, slowly forces him to confront the truth behind his religion and its implications not only for his people's society, but also for the ultimate future of all life in the universe.
"Oceanic" is filled with marvellous details that fill in rather than obscure the story: the division of society into Freelanders (fisher folk who travel on living boats) and the land dwelling Firmlanders; the division of the faithful into those who accept religion as a part of their lives and those who make it the purpose of their lives; the division of the planet's own ecosphere into organisms that are indigenous and those that are introduced; and the division between the sexes that is less a division than a "bridge" ...
In a sense, Martin's journey through puberty to adulthood, and from faith to understanding, mirrors our own journey of exploration through Martin's world. "Oceanic" is an excessively clever story, and ultimately a very moving one.
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©1998 Simon Brown.