essay on Greg Egan

This essay was written at least five years ago. Since then, a few things have changed: Egan has written more books, other writers mentioned have written more books, and finally – I have changed my opinion about some things. Still, the core remains valid.

THE PROBLEM OF HUMAN IDENTITY AND TRADITION

CONFRONTED WITH TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION

IN THE WORK OF GREG EGAN

Australian writer Greg Egan is one of the most interesting representatives of the contemporary SF literature. Combining extensive scientific knowledge with profound humanistic thought and sensitivity, Egan creates dazzling worlds inhabited by equally dazzling creatures, sometimes human, sometimes post-human, but still troubled by most existential problems of our race. It is those problems, dilemmas and aspirations that form the core of his writing and make it unique among that of other modern SF writers[1]. Contrary to the fin de siècle spirit (out of the eight books he has written so far seven were published in the 1990s), Egan refuses to believe that we are heading toward inevitable dehumanization. Even computer programs created as a reflection of the human mind (or, more scientifically, neural maps of human brains recreated in the software) are very human in their thinking. After all, they have been created in our image.

To many readers the very thought of transferring our consciousness to computer software, or even to material, but non-organic “bodies” may seem appalling, not to say blasphemous. Still, the process of the “technologization” of the human being has been going on for ages, as has the technological development of our civilization, and is not likely to stop.[2] Our great grandparents would probably be horrified by the thought of an artificial heart or a mechanical hand with moving fingers. Now scientists have successfully tested a microprocessor implanted under one’s skin and acting as a signaler of the person’s current whereabouts. The world is spinning faster and faster, and even though almost everyone complains about its “dehumanization”, that does not prevent us from having a good time. We still love, hate and experience the same emotions our ancestors did. And we are always able to find a way to be romantic. Love, an ancestor would say, with an artificial heart? And if we can do that, why shouldn’t we be able to love with an artificial brain, or even with no physical brain at all?

What, in essence, is consciousness? In the novel Diaspora Egan uses the cognitive model proposed by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, whose work combines two fields that at one point were very far apart – philosophy and sciences – presenting a very comprehensive portrait of human consciousness in all its complexity. Denying the existence of soul, Dennett is equally far from accepting the Darwin’s view of man as a beast driven by primitive instincts. We are conscious, moral beings, he says, and we learn patterns of behavior both as individuals and as a species. We are “programmed” by nature, yet at the same time we make our own choices. Egan takes Dennett’s ideas further, creating “citizens” that organically are not human at all, but descend from us mentally and emotionally. Seeing no place for God in the future world, he still acknowledges some people’s need to stick to “the old ways”, accepting the choice of those who prefer to die than to live outside their flesh.[3]

The absence of God in the Eganian universe refutes the taboo of man’s inferiority to the supreme being; the notion that there is some knowledge inaccessible to us and that trying to trespass its borders may have a disastrous effect on us. The metaphors of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the Pandora’s box are but two examples of that idea, which is probably as old as our civilization and is intended to prevent mankind from hurting or destroying itself. Literature and cinema abound in examples of people trying to cross that border and see what lies beyond. La vida es sueño by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, a 17th century Spanish playwright, deals with moral rather than eschatological matters, but it is one of the first examples of exploring in a fictional story the suspicion of our existence being nothing more than just a dream – of a god, a king, or even of ours. In the fascinating movie π (Pi), dealing with the same problem, Darren Aronofsky gives an example of a fish constantly trying to jump out of the fish tank despite knowing that it cannot survive without water. The question of wanting to see what’s beyond(or, paraphrasing the X-Files motto, what’s out there) is central to much of the fantastic literature, and probably the writer most obsessed with it is Philip K. Dick, whose novels Ubik, The Man in the High Castle or Time out of Joint are but a few examples of what that might be. The history of mankind has known many quasi-religious (and often formed as heretic schisms of Christianity, Judaism or other established religions), gnostic societies that have claimed to have a way of knowing “the whole truth”, such as hermetists, alchemists, kabbalists or the Rosycross Brotherhood.

We might conclude that it is the tension between the barrier and our will to break it that makes the world go round. After all, as some say, rules only exist in order to be broken. Certainly that is the case with our civilization, whose development would come to a standstill if we did not push the borders further and further.

Egan does not seem to believe in the danger of pushing them too far. Or maybe it is just that the idea does not appeal to him as a writer: it is far more interesting to imagine there is something waiting round each new corner than that at some turn we will simply fall into a black hole. Besides, he thinks potential dangers may lie everywhere, not just in our actions, and that we are unable to predict or prevent all of them. A random gene mutation in a butterfly, for example, might change the face of the whole organic life on Earth…

In the novel Distress Egan presents the quest for the Theory of Everything (TOE) – a comprehensive theory explaining all the rules governing the universe – and finding it in the form of instant illumination that is going to be automatically bestowed on every human since then. The world without mysteries is yet another taboo, as most of us seem to believe in the sense of life lying in striving rather than in achieving the goal. Still, Egan argues that even achieving absolute knowledge would not mean stagnation, let alone dehumanization.

Love in the face of the truth has turned out to be stronger than ever. Happiness never really depended on the old lies –

says the protagonist several years after the discovery of the TOE.

The central problem of Egan’s work, in general, may be defined as that of the conflict between the human tradition and the transformations mankind undergoes in the face of technological innovations, scientific discoveries and changes in the environment (e.g. overpopulation, cosmic disasters). How do we (or what is left of us) respond to constant challenges to our human condition? Will there be a day when, standing in front of a virtual mirror, we will have to say to ourselves “We’re not human anymore”? And if so, will it hurt? Will it mean more than the fact that we descend from apes?

Whatever the answer, there is a lot going on between now and that distant moment. And, like today, different beings will deal with the question of changes differently. Some will be eager to accept new options as soon as they appear, others will be more wary or reluctant, while a handful (or many more) will never be able or willing to change. There will be conservatives and reformers, and the majority will probably fall somewhere in between, trying hard not to stick out their necks in either direction. Some will prefer to die or become solipsists, refusing to accept the reality and substituting it with worlds created by themselves, while others will obsessively worship the remains of organic life, no matter how little relation it bears to their existence.[4]

That and a lot more can be found in the six novels and two collections of stories that comprise Egan’s existing work. Being relatively young, the author will probably write many more fascinating books in the years to come, but what has already been published deserves high praise. The best Polish SF writer of the young generation, Jacek Dukaj, not only admires Egan, but seems to have borrowed some ideas from him. Both are far ahead of their time; however, out of the two Egan appears to be a far better storyteller, in the most noble meaning of the word. His stories are superbly crafted and, for all their technical complexities, easier to absorb. Whether we treat him as a visionary or just a man of great imagination, his work deserves our utmost attention.

© Iwona Michałowska-Gabrych

2006


[1] I use the term „modern” to refer to the writers who, in the last three decades or so, have done more than just repeat the old SF patterns, and these are mainly the so-called cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writers.

[2] Unless, of course, some kind of disaster occurs that will hinder or reverse it, like the one described by Walter M. Miller Jr. in A Canticle for Leibowitz; but even there it only slows down the process, albeit by 3000 years.

[3] The same problem is dealt with in the novel Permutation City and several short stories, among them Border Guards.

[4] In Diaspora we find examples of two opposite „polises” (virtual societies). Ashton-Laval are a solipsist group, believing in engineering their world according to their whims, while Carter-Zimmerman carry out an extensive search for organic life across the universe. Some of them used to live in the flesh and dream of going back to that form, while for others it is a chase of a myth, resembling our search for God. “We choose to value the physical world” – their credo says.

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