Re: Luminous

I was wrong about “Luminous,” by Greg Egan. I finally got around to reading it, and I have to say I’m disappointed. Since I read “Dark Integers” first, I was hoping for a little more about what happened in Shanghai, who Industrial Algebra was, and some justification for a defect in math allowing contact with another universe.

“Luminous” begins in Shanghai, when Bruno wakes up to find himself handcuffed to his bed while a knife-wielding spy hacking at his arm. Lucky for him, he has some convenient technology in his blood that gets rid of her. I found it hard to take seriously, and it didn’t help that I kept thinking about those stories where some guy wakes up in a hotel in Shanghai in a bathtub full of ice.

As for Industrial Algebra, all we learn is they’re a UK-based firm whose motivations are never firmly established. Bruno surmises that IA could exploit the mathematical defects to make billions in the financial markets. You know, maybe they did and they’re running hedge funds right now. Maybe that’s what a CDO really is.

The premise of the story is laid out in a conversation between Bruno and his confederate, Alison, in four pages of nearly all dialogue with barely a flash of introspection or emotion to help the reader process what the characters are saying. Which is a pity, because their speculations about how there might be places where mathematics doesn’t match up with itself are pretty cool.

The very coolest part of the story is the supercomputer Luminous. In two paragraphs of mind-blowing description, you almost believe that you really could make a computer out of light. With Luminous, they find the other math, but they can only map it, not talk to it. Evidently that happens between the two stories.

What really annoyed me was all the time they spent worrying that IA might find it, too. Lucky for them, it turns out to be too robust for even IA to exploit. Maybe that’s why Industrial Algebra never shows up. If you ask me, they shouldn’t have been in the story in the first place.

The story ends with the sense that huge possibilities have been opened up. Lucky for all of us, “Dark Integers” does a decent job of elaborating on the possibilities.

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