AXIOMATIC - Stories by Greg Egan
Harper Prism paperback edition, December 1997
Cover illustration by Romas
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There are some writers you read for their short work, and some you read for their long work. I have to admit up front, here, that I've never read any of Greg Egan's longer stuff, but I tell you that this guy knows how to write short stories.
This volume is subtitled, "Science fiction for people who like science fiction." After finishing the book, I think that's a fair assessment, but overly glib. People who like science fiction will probably be best able to understand how good these stories, most of them, are in the genre. Readers without a good grounding in sf may not realize at first they are in the presence of a writer who is mapping new territory of the human heart and spirit.
Egan, an Australian, has the happy facility to come up with new ideas, and/or new spin on old ideas. Nothing in this book quite corresponds to anything I've read elsewhere. The very flavor of Egan's fiction reminds me a little of the Strugatsky brothers' work.
Jonathon "Sullydog" Sullivan, reviewing for NEVERWORLDS, has called Egan's work "mind brandy," as distinguished from mind candy, and I think that's an apt description. AXIOMATIC consists of eighteen tales, most published in INTERZONE. Some of them defy description, rather in the same way that the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle defies the ability to both describe a particle's whereabouts and velocity at the same time. If I tried to tell you the plot of the opening tale, "The Infinite Assassin," I'd break it into a million bits. The story's overall effect is unlike that of anything else I've ever read, and I'm not trying to be arch or coy. Egan builds up his work from layers of words the way an artist builds up successive layers of thin glaze, to achieve an overall effect that no single layer demonstrates. What I can say is that this strange little tale, of a man stalking his prey across parallel universes, builds to a dizzying climax that is enigmatic yet most satisfying.
Most of the stories in this collection are like that. Somehow or other Egan has managed to find new things to say about time travel, virtual reality, quantum mechanics, life, death and the way we are as people, and to do so in ways that stick with the reader. Weeks after reading what is for my money the book's strongest piece, "The Safe-Deposit Box," I couldn't get it out of my mind. The story's protagonist is essentially a disembodied human mind that wakes up each day in a new body. But Egan imposes some limits on this: in the protagonist's own words, "Although I still have occasional daydreams about waking up twenty years younger, that seems to be as unlikely for me as it is for anyone else; in thirty-nine years, so far as I know, I've yet to have a host born anytime but November or December of 1951. Nor have I had a host born, or presently living, outside this city." Egan lets us feel the humanity of this peculiar person as he(?) searches for and eventually finds the truth about his identity. For many writers this would form the basis for a novel. Egan nails it down tight in less than 7,000 words, a bravura performance.
He doesn't always touch all the bases. "Into the Darkness" concerns a man whose job it is to rescue people trapped by what is understood as a malfunctioning time probe from the future that appears here and there and acts rather like a black hole while it is manifesting. The tale's fascinating set-up and non-stop action is weakened by an inconclusive and somewhat mannered ending.
But aside from this and one or two other small lapses when Egan seems to be paying more attention to the writing than to the characters, AXIOMATIC is a book that begs to be re-read. These are stories whose outcome can't be foretold, involving complex and all too human beings who are simply trying to make sense of themselves and their lives. If they have been dehumanized by their technologies, they are not content to remain so. That is what sets Egan's fiction apart from that of most other sf practitioners.
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