Greg Egan, Luminous (1998)

“the only freedom lies in being this machine, and not another”, Mr Volition.

A sinister genetically-engineered jungle; a super-computer made out of light; a piece of software that could reveal the true nature of consciousness; a religious icon from Chernobyl; a mysterious, deadly new disease; a barrier to protect the foetus in the womb; radical brain surgery that might allow you to choose your own happiness. These are some of the delights and terrors contained within the stories of Greg Egan.

Greg Egan writes hard science fiction. His stories are concerned with the ways in which people respond to scientific advances and, just as importantly, how science shapes the possibilities of human existence.  These are stories about the politics and the ethics of science and its interactions with economics, culture and belief.

Take ‘Cocoon’, one of my favourite stories in the collection. A private investigator is hired to look into the bombing of a lab where scientists are developing a biological barrier to protect the foetus in the womb. Egan uses this possibility to explore issues of ethics, religion and sexuality.  What if the prime purpose of the barrier wasn’t really to protect the developing foetus from disease or toxins? What if the cause of sexual diversity had been discovered and, with that discovery, a means of preventing it? I loved ‘Cocoon’ because it’s still rare to see mainstream science fiction grappling with issues of sexuality beyond the inclusion of a few gay characters.  ‘Cocoon’ is different because it’s an in-depth engagement with issues that are important to LGBT people.  Egan seems well aware that science can be misused in the service of ideology and engages with the debate between those who want to find a “natural” biological explanation for sexual and gender diversity and those who regard even the asking of such questions as inherently dangerous.

‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ is another superb story. It features a man who has suffered brain damage that prevents him from experiencing any emotions beyond a terrible sense of depression and hopelessness.  A radical brain surgeon offers him experimental surgery that works by grafting patterns from 4,000 donors onto his brain to rebuild the neurons, allowing him to experiencing emotion again but as “a remix of 4,000 dead strangers”. This is a story about the brain and how it makes us who we are and it’s one of the most moving and humane stories that I’ve read in a long time.

‘Mitochondrial Eve’ takes issue with the way we tend to construct ideological, political and even religious narratives from scientific evidence.  The story is told from the perspective of a beleaguered scientist caught in the middle of a debate between people who want to unite humanity through an appeal to shared descent through one female ancestor in Sub-Saharan Africa 200,000 years ago and those who promote the counter claims of various Y-Chromosonal “Adams”.  Human DNA has become politicised, a means through which to enact power struggles that are really about gender and race.

In the title story, two young mathematicians stumble on an alternative mathematics that could undermine the nature of our universe. Knowledge of this mathematics would be very valuable to certain corporate interests, but it can only be destroyed by the most powerful computer in the world, Luminous.  However, they are being pursued, gaining access to Luminous is difficult, time is running out and at the last moment, they start to ask whether they should destroy the knowledge.

It is the tension between science and belief that drives many of these stories. As I mentioned, Egan seems well aware of the ways in which science can be misused, but he’s even more wary of the dangers of belief.  Old-world superstition, orthodox religion and new age spirituality all come under harsh scrutiny in these stories. This theme plays out most horrifyingly in the story ‘Silver Fire’.  Medical science has found a way to keep the victims of a new (and stomach-churningly gruesome) disease nicknamed ‘Silver Fire’ alive indefinitely, but there is no cure and little understanding of how it spreads. A researcher is sent to investigate an outbreak in the hope of discovering a pattern of infection.  What she finds instead is a developing belief system in which Silver Fire figures as the doorway to a spiritual realm called the ‘Trail of Happiness’.  The ending is horrific and it’s not a story I’d want to read twice.

‘Chaff’, ‘Volition’ and ‘Our Lady of Chernobyl’ are also strong stories. I picked up Luminous because I liked the cover and found myself treated to one of the most absorbing and thought-provoking science fiction collections that I’ve ever read.

Egan is an Australian writer. You can read some interviews with him here