- The Good: Hard science fiction stories with philosophical leanings
- The Bad: Dense and lengthy collection may warrant breaks and time to digest
- The Literary: Collection of short stories to novellas spanning a thirty-year career presented in chronological order
This collection of twenty hard science fiction stories are the best of Greg Egan’s career. From short stories to novellas, you’ll encounter artificial intelligence and consciousness, science and religion, and unexpected fusion of human and technology. With such a wide range of stories, there’s something for every hard scifi fan. Each story is filled to the brim with intelligent ideas, often presented in surprisingly entertaining ways, and I love the stories that consider the boundaries of the natural brain, whether enhanced by biology or tech.
My absolute favorites include:
- The very first story, “Learning to be Me,” is about brain implant tech referred to as “the jewel”, which listens and learns the hosts’ thoughts. When the host is ready, typically in their twenties or thirties, they undergo the “switch”, letting the jewel take over the natural brain and become the primary processor, giving the host a kind of immortality. A later story “Closer” takes place in the same world and questions what makes consciousness.
- “Axiomatic” is another implant story, but one in which adults can purchase very specific alterations to their personalities, from meditation to languages to sexual orientation to Catholicism. The hero of of the story buys one that will let him take revenge on the man who shot his wife during a bank robbery.
- In “Appropriate Love”, a woman’s husband needs a new body to survive. Thankfully cloning technology is well accepted and their insurance will pay for the least costly medically sanctioned option. Unfortunately, a new option is available for brain storage that challenges her commitment to him.
- “Reasons to be Cheerful” follows a young boy who thinks unbridled happiness is the natural state of being, until his brain tumor is removed and he must face life with a drastically lower baseline of endorphins.
- The Hugo Award-winning novella “Oceanic” is fantastic. A young boy in a sea-faring community experiences a powerfully spiritual near-death experience at a young age, forming a rock-solid religious belief that guides him to make his faith the center of his studies.
I should stop there, but there are so many great stories in this collection that it’s hard to showcase just a few. There are others that explore ideas in math, physics, and chemistry. Some are detective stories and mysteries. Some feature androids. Some question fate with parallel universes. A trio of stories later in the book follow self-aware NPC characters in gaming worlds.
One of the great things unique to this collection is the temporal breadth of the stories, spanning Egan’s thirty year plus career. Even more interesting is that they are presented in chronological order, providing an interesting opportunity to trace the growth and exploration of the writer. Over time, the stories tend to grow longer. More complex plots emerge. The POV characters grow more diverse. There’s more exploration of technical details. But the early stories pack a punch in their simplicity that will stick with me.
Recommended for any hard scifi fan! Thanks to Netgalley and Subterranean Press for the advance reader copy!