I’m not sure it’s right for me to write about Incandescence, by Greg Egan. I didn’t finish it. I didn’t even make it past the 150 page mark. In fact I lost count of how many essays it took me to read the first four chapters. But I put it on my 2008 list of books I’m interested in, so I feel obliged to talk about why it so thoroughly stymied me.
It’s the hard science fiction equivalent of the literary novel that’s so challenging that if you can’t get interested, you feel stupid and lazy. Like Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Vellum. I don’t know if it’s praise or not.
The ideas in the book are really cool. The odd-numbered chapters depict a post-human galaxy filled with intelligent beings that casually transmit themselves across the light-years in the full confidence that there will still be receivers to reconstitute them thousands of years later. Despite their power, they can’t go into the core of the galaxy, where the mysterious Aloof dwell. Which means our hero must go there. Which sounds great, but since everything is so distant from our experience, it’s all couched in metaphor and indirect language and exposition that make it hard to attach interest in the story. For starters, the first chapter was one long discussion featuring a being who chooses to call himself Rakesh talking to a being he chooses to call Lahl, and the convoluted reasons why it’s important to him to investigate a world that might have DNA in it. I think.
The even-numbered chapters depict insectoid creatures inside a world that may once have been part of a larger world. Maybe my love of bugs is showing, because I rather liked the agricultural worker, Roi, who is recruited into exploring her world. So she goes exploring, measuring how the gravity does very strange things, like passing through null zones and turning about, complete with diagram with new words for the directions. I got just far enough to suspect that Roi’s world was going to be one big puzzle for the reader to figure out. But I had no idea whether there was going to be a story to sucker me into the puzzle.
In the end, I had to admit, I just wasn’t that into it.