Saturday Sci-Fi: Greg Egan

Greg Egan is one of the ‘post-singularity’ modern hard science science-fiction authors I read now-a-days. He resides in Perth, Australia and is a computer scientist/programmer. His stories usually center on consciousness uploading, physics, genetics, artificial intelligence and sexuality. I find his writings hard to follow sometimes when he gets overly technical about the physics in the story, but I like the challenge it brings when he offers an unique plot I never have seen before. You could also see that his works belong to the likes of Orion’s Arm and other sites like that. In fact, he is cited as an influence. His essays and short stories posted for free online and has a new book out due May 1st, 2007.

I’m going to post a sample from a free short story from his site. Give it a try and see what you think.

In their ten-thousand, three hundred and ninth year of marriage, Leila and Jasim began contemplating death. They had known love, raised children, and witnessed the flourishing generations of their offspring. They had travelled to a dozen worlds and lived among a thousand cultures. They had educated themselves many times over, proved theorems, and acquired and abandoned artistic sensibilities and skills. They had not lived in every conceivable manner, far from it, but what room would there be for the multitude if each individual tried to exhaust the permutations of existence? There were some experiences, they agreed, that everyone should try, and others that only a handful of people in all of time need bother with. They had no wish to give up their idiosyncrasies, no wish to uproot their personalities from the niches they had settled in long ago, let alone start cranking mechanically through some tedious enumeration of all the other people they might have been. They had been themselves, and for that they had done, more or less, enough.

Before dying, though, they wanted to attempt something grand and audacious. It was not that their lives were incomplete, in need of some final flourish of affirmation. If some unlikely calamity had robbed them of the chance to orchestrate this finale, the closest of their friends would never have remarked upon, let alone mourned, its absence. There was no aesthetic compulsion to be satisfied, no aching existential void to be filled. Nevertheless, it was what they both wanted, and once they had acknowledged this to each other their hearts were set on it.

Choosing the project was not a great burden; that task required nothing but patience. They knew they’d recognise it when it came to them. Every night before sleeping, Jasim would ask Leila, “Did you see it yet?”

“No. Did you?”

“Not yet.”

Sometimes Leila would dream that she’d found it in her dreams, but the transcripts proved otherwise. Sometimes Jasim felt sure that it was lurking just below the surface of his thoughts, but when he dived down to check it was nothing but a trick of the light.

Years passed. They occupied themselves with simple pleasures: gardening, swimming in the surf, talking with their friends, catching up with their descendants. They had grown skilled at finding pastimes that could bear repetition. Still, were it not for the nameless adventure that awaited them they would have thrown a pair of dice each evening and agreed that two sixes would end it all.

One night, Leila stood alone in the garden, watching the sky. From their home world, Najib, they had travelled only to the nearest stars with inhabited worlds, each time losing just a few decades to the journey. They had chosen those limits so as not to alienate themselves from friends and family, and it had never felt like much of a constraint. True, the civilisation of the Amalgam wrapped the galaxy, and a committed traveller could spend two hundred thousand years circling back home, but what was to be gained by such an overblown odyssey? The dozen worlds of their neighbourhood held enough variety for any traveller, and whether more distant realms were filled with fresh novelties or endless repetition hardly seemed to matter. To have a goal, a destination, would be one thing, but to drown in the sheer plenitude of worlds for its own sake seemed utterly pointless.

A destination? Leila overlaid the sky with information, most of it by necessity millennia out of date. There were worlds with spectacular views of nebulas and star clusters, views that could be guaranteed still to be in existence if they travelled to see them, but would taking in such sights firsthand be so much better than immersion in the flawless images already available in Najib’s library? To blink away ten thousand years just to wake beneath a cloud of green and violet gas, however lovely, seemed like a terrible anticlimax.

The stars tingled with self-aggrandisement, plaintively tugging at her attention. The architecture here, the rivers, the festivals! Even if these tourist attractions could survive the millennia, even if some were literally unique, there was nothing that struck her as a fitting prelude to death. If she and Jasim had formed some whimsical attachment, centuries before, to a world on the other side of the galaxy rumoured to hold great beauty or interest, and if they had talked long enough about chasing it down when they had nothing better to do, then keeping that promise might have been worth it, even if the journey led them to a world in ruins. They had no such cherished destination, though, and it was too late to cultivate one now.

Leila’s gaze followed a thinning in the advertising, taking her to the bulge of stars surrounding the galaxy’s centre. The disk of the Milky Way belonged to the Amalgam, whose various ancestral species had effectively merged into a single civilisation, but the central bulge was inhabited by beings who had declined to do so much as communicate with those around them. All attempts to send probes into the bulge — let alone the kind of engineering spores needed to create the infrastructure for travel — had been gently but firmly rebuffed, with the intruders swatted straight back out again. The Aloof had maintained their silence and isolation since before the Amalgam itself had even existed.

The latest news on this subject was twenty thousand years old, but the status quo had held for close to a million years. If she and Jasim travelled to the innermost edge of the Amalgam’s domain, the chances were exceptionally good that the Aloof would not have changed their ways in the meantime. In fact, it would be no disappointment at all if the Aloof had suddenly thrown open their borders: that unheralded thaw would itself be an extraordinary thing to witness. If the challenge remained, though, all the better.

She called Jasim to the garden and pointed out the richness of stars, unadorned with potted histories.

“We go where?” he asked.

“As close to the Aloof as we’re able.”

“And do what?”

“Try to observe them,” she said. “Try to learn something about them. Try to make contact, in whatever way we can.”

“You don’t think that’s been tried before?”

“A million times. Not so much lately, though. Maybe while the interest on our side has ebbed, they’ve been changing, growing more receptive.”

“Or maybe not.” Jasim smiled. He had appeared a little stunned by her proposal at first, but the idea seemed to be growing on him. “It’s a hard, hard problem to throw ourselves against. But it’s not futile. Not quite.” He wrapped her hands in his. “Let’s see how we feel in the morning.”

In the morning, they were both convinced. They would camp at the gates of these elusive strangers, and try to rouse them from their indifference.

They summoned the family from every corner of Najib. There were some grandchildren and more distant descendants who had settled in other star systems, decades away at lightspeed, but they chose not to wait to call them home for this final farewell.

Two hundred people crowded the physical house and garden, while two hundred more confined themselves to the virtual wing. There was talk and food and music, like any other celebration, and Leila tried to undercut any edge of solemnity that she felt creeping in. As the night wore on, though, each time she kissed a child or grandchild, each time she embraced an old friend, she thought: this could be the last time, ever. There had to be a last time, she couldn’t face ten thousand more years, but a part of her spat and struggled like a cornered animal at the thought of each warm touch fading to nothing.

As dawn approached, the party shifted entirely into the acorporeal. People took on fancy dress from myth or xenology, or just joked and played with their illusory bodies. It was all very calm and gentle, nothing like the surreal excesses she remembered from her youth, but Leila still felt a tinge of vertigo. When her son Khalid made his ears grow and spin, this amiable silliness carried a hard message: the machinery of the house had ripped her mind from her body, as seamlessly as ever, but this time she would never be returning to the same flesh.

Sunrise brought the first of the goodbyes. Leila forced herself to release each proffered hand, to unwrap her arms from around each non-existent body. She whispered to Jasim, “Are you going mad, too?”

“Of course.”

Gradually the crowd thinned out. The wing grew quiet. Leila found herself pacing from room to room, as if she might yet chance upon someone who’d stayed behind, then she remembered urging the last of them to go, her children and friends tearfully retreating down the hall. She skirted inconsolable sadness, then lifted herself above it and went looking for Jasim.

He was waiting for her outside their room.

“Are you ready to sleep?” he asked her gently.

She said, “For an eon.”

The title is Riding the Crocodile. Buckle up!

3 responses

  1. Egan isn’t alone in that he posts free online short stories. Orion’s Arm and his site were my introductions to the Singularity, even though Vernor Vinge is considered the first in this generation to coin the term, and I’ve read Vinge’s stories for years!

  2. You’re speaking Greek to me, dad. But even with very little understanding, this is still Good Reads.

  3. Science-fiction to me Mirth has always been about stretching my mind to the limits. It also helps to have that spark of idealism. I think that’s what keeps me going.

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