Roberts on Incandescence

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This is a commentary on Adam Roberts’ review of Greg Egan’s novel Incandescence in Strange Horizons (). There are some spoilers for the novel.

Roberts teaches English literature at the University of London, writes and reviews science fiction, and blogs at the Valve and elsewhere. He’s very insightful about the use of language, for example in this hilarious satirical review of Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem. However, in his review of Incandescence he appears to declare a lack of interest in science itself:

[I] was less intrigued by Zak and Roi’s interminable toing and froing with stones and springs inside the Splinter, to which adheres the odour of fourth-form school physics labs.

(I’m interpreting “odour” as a signifier of disgust here; cf. George Orwell’s essay “Such, such were the joys”.)

This lack of interest makes his review very unsatisfactory. In particular, I think it leads him to misidentify the main subject of the novel as being “finding stuff out”, that is, the process of scientific discovery:

[The characters] come across as ciphers through which Egan rehearses the process by which scientists undertake experiment after experiment in order to move closer to the truth.

It seems to me that the main subject of the book is the general theory of relativity itself, not just the process of its discovery, and the process by which Egan’s characters discover the theory is of interest because of its complete difference from Einstein’s discovery, not because it’s a “rehearsal” of similarity.

Egan’s novel is deliberately constructed so as to the dramatize the theory of general relativity, by contriving a situation in which accurate understanding of the theory makes the difference between life and death for a whole civilization. It’s also a demonstration of the universality of physical laws. Einstein’s discovery of general relativity was driven by mathematical hypothesis (what theory do we get if we assume the equivalence of accelerating and gravitational frames of reference?) and only verified by painstaking observation after it was formulated, once people knew what to look for. But in Incandescence, the characters, living in a much more curved region of spacetime than our own, are driven to discover general relativity by direct observation of the dynamics of orbits. Completely different contexts of discovery lead to the same underlying physics.

Everything else in the novel forms the supporting framework for this dramatization, and the difficulty of making it work at all requires Egan to write in the ways that Roberts so dislikes. Because the material is complicated, it’s necessary for the text to be “dry” (but it’s not “unengaging” if you’re interested in the subject). Because there’s so much theory to cover, it’s necessary for the other elements of the story to be streamlined and simplified, hence the flat characterization. Because the setup is so very contrived (civilization in orbit closely around a black hole; civilization discovers gravitation from first principles in a very short time), there needs to be a backstory explaining how it came to pass.

This is why Roberts’ remark that the “novel as a whole feels like a neat-oh short-story idea that has been stretched” is so wrong: Egan barely manages to compress his material into the novel as it is. (Compare with Gravitation by Misner, Thorne and Wheeler, which is 1,215 pages long!)

Roberts’ failure to appreciate what the novel is about leads him to flail about looking for details to criticize, and this results in a couple of embarrassing appeals to grammatical shibboleths:

It’s a shame that Egan seems innocent of the proper use of the subjunctive mood (“if this world was a bacterial graveyard ...” p. 102) or the inelegance of ending sentences with prepositions (“...the abundance that she was used to” p. 40)

Both of these constructions are perfectly fine in modern informal English. Indeed, even according to the traditional rules for “if” clauses, the subjunctive is supposed to be reserved for cases where the supposition is counterfactual (see the American Heritage guide to contemporary usage and style). Egan’s use is correct according to this rule, since the character is supposing the world in question to be a bacterial graveyard. Of course, in real English usage this rule is not observed, as the American Heritage guide goes on to point out. And see Mark Liberman on sentence-final prepositions.

However, most of Roberts’ other criticisms are in fact perfectly justified—Egan’s characters really are weak, the dialogue is very dry, there really is a lot of infodumping—but I think they show a lack of insight into what Egan is trying to do. These criticisms would be spot-on when analyzing a novel about character or human relationships but they completely miss the target here. Egan is not writing about character or human relationships, he’s writing about the laws of physics.

Of course Roberts cannot be made to enjoy fiction about the laws of physics: if he found the subject boring in fourth form he’s going to find it boring now. So why did he attempt a review of a book that he was so unsuited to appreciate? I guess that this is just the kind of mismatch that happens all the time in reviewing (sometimes the mismatch is deliberate, to stir up controversy, but I think most often it’s accidental, and that’s probably the case here).

In my own review of Incandescence () I dismissed the whole question of character and plot in Egan’s work:

Egan has little interest in the idea that science fiction is about exploring human responses to changes in technology and society: his characters are often post-human or non-human, and rarely particularly engaging or sympathetic [...] After all, there are plenty of other authors writing about 20th-century people in space.

But now I wonder if there might be some way to bridge the gap? The visible construction lines in Incandescence suggest that such a book is presently beyond the powers of the genre, but maybe now that Egan has blazed the trail other writers may be able to follow?

Greg Egan wrote his own response to Roberts’ review, “Anatomy of a hatchet job” () which makes some similar points to mine, but is perhaps a bit unwise in the strength of its rhetoric. I doubt that Roberts set out deliberately to write a hatchet job; his review is probably a genuine attempt to engage with the novel that’s gone astray.

I think Egan can have faith in his core readership to understand what he’s trying to achieve, so he does not need worry too much about reviewers who don’t quite get it. Instead, he could use this kind of review as a clue as to how to broaden his appeal (if that is indeed something he is interested in). Maybe Roberts is out of reach, at least for the moment, but I’m sure that there’s a wider readership that could be turned on to his kind of fictional exploration of science, given an appropriate sweetening of character, language, and plot.

But I would miss the stark, spare, rigour of Incandescence.