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Okrzyki, przyjaciel!

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Greg Egan [Oct. 11th, 2003|09:41 am]
Okrzyki, przyjaciel!
Authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neil Stephenson have achieved a certain chic among hipsters who wouldn't be caught dead reading science fiction in general. This is partly because Cyberpunk arose as personal computers and the Internet became mass pheonmena. It can be argued that Gibson's early writing sparked the imagination of early adopters, and gave the Internet and the Web a binding metaphor. The very engineers designing and implementing the current global information infrastructure, all Sci-Fi nerds nearly to a man (or woman) were very consciously trying to build the Metaverse described by Gibson.

And they succeeded -- not that Gibson or Stephenson were right about immersive Virtual Reality. As it turns out, virtual reality was largely a dead end; both because the technology isn't up to the challenge yet, and because it's largely unnecessary. The human imagination has no trouble bridging the gap between the glass tube and keyboard and an immersive global commons.

Anyway, what I meant to write about here is the author Greg Egan. Of all the authors who are in the penumbra of the cyberpunk pantheon, I'd like to nominate him to be promoted to the first circle. No other author I've read so fully realizes (in both the active and passive sense) the consequences of technology and physics taken to their absurd logical conclusions, while at the same time exploring the human conflicts they engender.

He builds elaborate maguffins out of imaginary (yet plausible) theoretical physics. But he manages always to connect them back to real conflicts of belief, ethics, and compassion. While he never fails to provide the outre' 'brain candy' that keeps science fiction readers coming back, what he's really on about is much larger, darker, and more complex than any run-of-the-mill space opera.

I just finished reading "Distress," courtesy of the Iowa City Public Library, and I was struck by just how perfectly he balances the personal and the cosmic. 'Distress' is about a conference on 'The Theory of Everything' that takes place on an island grown (the bio-tech angle, eh?) by anarchists in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In his world, gender politics have become literally physical, with a substantial minority turning themselves into sexless inbetweeners in order to check out entirely; religious cults become explicitly political, and the work of theoretical physics can become the focus of a hundred warring agendas.

In the middle of all this there is a passage that is so arrestingly apt and beautiful that I'm going to risk tendonitis and ridicule by transcribing it here. It's a conversation between the protagonist (a journalist) and a woman who helped him escape from some radicals who were holding him captive on a boat:

[the woman] ... "I was in a fishing boat that capsized, five years ago. We were caught in a storm. My parents, and my sister. My parents were knocked unconscious, they drowned straight away. My sister and I spent ten hours in the ocean, treading water, taking turns holding each other up."

[...]"Ten hours. I still dream about it. I grew up on a fishing boat--and I'd seen storms sweep away whole villages. I thought I already knew exactly how I felt about the ocean. But that time in the water with my sister changed everything."

[the journalist]"In what way? Do you have more respect, more fear?"

Vunibobo shook her head imaptiently. "More lifejackets, actually, but that's not what I'm talking about." She grimaced, frustrated, but then she said, "Would you do something for me? Close your eyes, and try to picture the world. All ten billion people at once. I know it's impossible, but try."

I was baffled, but I obliged. "Okay."

"Now describe what you see."

"A view of the Earth from space. It's more like a sketch than a photograph, though. North is up. The Indian Ocean is in the center -- but the view stretches from West Africa to New Zealand, from Ireland to Japan. There are crowds of people--not to scale--standing on all the continents and islands. Don't ask me to count them, but I'd guess there are about a hundred, in all."

[...]She said, "I used to see something like that, myself. But since the accident, it's changed. When I close my eyes and imagine the world, now ... I see the same map, the same continents...but the land isn't land at all. What looks like solid ground is really a solid mass of people; there is no dry land, there is nowhere to stand. We're all in the ocean, treading water, holding each other up. That's how we're born, that's how we die. Struggling to keep each other's heads above the waves."

If that isn't a metaphor that deserves to be repeated a million times over until it's a cliche. I don't know what is.