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Greg Egan$

Karen Burnham

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780252038419

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252038419.001.0001

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Interview With Greg Egan

Interview With Greg Egan

Chapter:
(p.157) Interview With Greg Egan
Source:
Greg Egan
Author(s):

Karen Burnham

Publisher:
University of Illinois Press
DOI:10.5406/illinois/9780252038419.003.0007

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents an extensive interview with Greg Egan. Topics discussed include the kind of science fiction and nonfiction books that he read growing up; why he was initially attracted writing horror stories; sources that he uses when doing research for his books; whether he had ever been tempted to go into academia and formally study physics; cyberpunk authors that he has read; how he became interested in neuroscience; his thoughts on the way we construct identity given the organic influences of our brains and the potential for fine control of computerized brains; his take on the science of quantum mechanics as it relates to human minds; and if he would choose to upload himself if scanning technology were currently available.

Keywords:   Greg Egan, science fiction authors, interviews, horror stories, physics, cyberpunk, neuroscience, brain, identity, quantum mechanics

KAREN BURNHAM:

  • What sort of science fiction did you read growing up?
  • GREG EGAN:

  • Because my mother worked in a library, I managed to get an adult library ticket at the age of about nine or ten, so I was reading all the SF that was around in the early ’70s. If you name any SF writer who was in print then, I probably read at least one thing by them, but don’t ask me to list all the titles. I was reading one or two novels a week, year after year, so I was just immersed in this vast soup of SF tropes, like a bacterium picking up genes from plasmids.
  • Certainly Clarke and Asimov would have been among the earliest names that I knew to look for; I remember that by the time The Gods Themselves reached the library I was already a long-time Asimov fan. And I have fond memories of reading Dick’s Eye in the Sky and Counter-Clock World at about the same time.
  • (p.158) KB:

  • Were there any nonfiction books or series that you picked up as a young reader that were equally influential?
  • GE:

  • I would have been reading maths and science books at the same time, but by now I have no memories of any titles except for the magazines: Scientific American, Sky and Telescope, and Electronics Australia. I had some chemistry sets, a microscope, and a telescope—I tried to grind my own telescope mirror, working from a book, but I couldn’t get it right, so my parents bought me a small refractor.
  • KB:

  • Some of your earliest published short stories are horror rather than SF. What attracted you to write horror initially?
  • GE:

  • My first couple of published stories, “Artifact” in 1983 and “The Way She Smiles, the Things She Says” in 1985, were SF, and the third, “Tangled Up,” was a sort of fantasy. I had a run of three horror stories after that. But I also wrote countless unpublished SF stories, starting in my teens and all the way up until the late ’80s. I couldn’t tell you who I got my first rejection slip from, what the story was called, or even what it was about—I would have been 13 or 14, and all the details have vanished into my mental slush pile.
  • I enjoyed reading horror when I was young, mostly short stories in anthologies. I don’t recall many authors or titles, but I remember being creeped out by something I’m fairly sure was one of Lovecraft’s when I was about 10. My three published horror stories were all based on dreams, and I’m still reasonably happy with them, but I never really developed that kind of style and mood into anything more substantial.
  • KB:

  • When you do research for your books these days, what sources do you turn to?
  • GE:

  • Textbooks, the arXiv, Wikipedia, Google Earth. Of course Google Earth isn’t perfect—the images can be out of date, or difficult to interpret. When I went to Iran to research Zendegi, I discovered that some locations I’d initially chosen for protests in Tehran had changed from open squares into construction sites.
  • For a certain kind of hard SF, the nice thing is that you can usually check everything by consistency as well as against published sources. I used a few general relativity textbooks when I was writing Incandescence, so whenever I calculated something that was mentioned explicitly in one (p.159) of those books, I could be sure I’d got it right; but for all the other results I needed, there were usually at least three different ways I could analyse the situation, so if I got the same answer by every route, I could be fairly confident that I hadn’t made a mistake along the way.
  • KB:

  • You’ve obviously done an amazing amount of work in understanding physics as part of the research and background for your books and stories. Have you ever been tempted to go into academia and study these concepts formally on the graduate level?
  • GE:

  • I didn’t really embark on any substantial study on my own until the mid-’90s, when I taught myself general relativity, and that didn’t leave me pining to return to university; if anything, it made it clear that I’d be far happier just satisfying my curiosity at my own pace. And I doubt that any PhD thesis could be half as much fun, or as wide-ranging, as the work I did for the Orthogonal books.
  • KB:

  • Between the publication of An Unusual Angle and that of Quarantine, cyberpunk came to prominence. Did you read any of the cyberpunk authors at the time, and did they have any noticeable impact on your writing?
  • GE:

  • I read Neuromancer in 1985, because I was voting for the Hugos that year and I thought I ought to read all the nominated novels. I really hated it; aside from the style and the characters, which definitely weren’t to my taste, a lot of things about the technology in the book seemed very contrived and unlikely, especially the idea that anyone would plug in a brain-computer interface that they knew a third party could use to harm them.
  • Over the next few years I read some Rucker and Sterling novels, which I definitely enjoyed more than Gibson. So there was some reasonable stuff written under the cyberpunk banner, but none of it felt very groundbreaking to anyone who’d been reading Dick and Delany, and if it hadn’t been wrapped in so much hype I probably would have enjoyed it more. In fact, the way cyberpunk as a movement influenced me most was a sense of irritation with its obsession with hipness. I don’t think there’s much doubt that “Axiomatic” and the opening sections of Quarantine have a kind of cyberpunk flavour to them, but my thinking at the time would have been less “Maybe I can join the cyberpunk club!” and more “Maybe I can steal back private eyes and brain-computer interfaces for people who think mirror shades are pretentious, and do something more interesting with them.”
  • (p.160) KB:

  • A lot of your fiction focuses on biotech, specifically neuroscience. How did you come to be interested in that field? Do you approach the research for those stories differently?
  • GE:

  • Biology and neuroscience in particular turn the abstract, philosophical fact that humans are matter like everything else into a tangible set of insights and possibilities. Just knowing that we’re some kind of collection of molecules only gets you so far; we’re a very specific kind of thing, so if you’re interested in what it means to be matter, the biological sciences are enormously important. If you want to know where love, morality, kindness, jealousy, fear, and joy actually come from, the answers are all biological.
  • I don’t have any formal education in biology, so when I write a story about biotech or neuroscience, I read around the subject as much as I can and just try not to make a fool of myself.
  • KB:

  • In stories like “Axiomatic” and “Reasons to be Cheerful,” we see how many of the elements we consider central to our identities can be controlled by neurochemistry. Similarly there are many software-based characters in your fiction who can edit aspects of their own personalities. Throughout it all the characters still have a sense of “I” that is responsible for the choices they make regardless of the influence of neurochemistry—but when the protagonist of “Mister Volition” goes looking for that “I,” it’s not there to be found. What are your thoughts on the way we construct identity given the organic influences of our brains and the potential for fine control of computerized brains?
  • GE:

  • Identity is not irreducible or immutable, but our biological history has left us with a situation where it makes sense that we’re not wildly unstable or incapable of any kind of internal consensus. I mean, we only have one body and it can only do a limited number of things at a time, so all our different drives and priorities have to sort out some way to get along or we’d just be paralysed. It would also be very counterproductive, in evolutionary terms, if we couldn’t predict our own future behaviour at all. For a social animal living in a complex environment, there’s a tension between the benefits of flexibility and the pitfalls of being completely erratic.
  • So I think a sense of identity is our way of reflecting on the particular consensus we’ve achieved and making judgements on how well it’s worked in the past and what we expect of it in the future. In the end, I’d say my (p.161) identity consists of all the things about my personality and values that persist—some because they’re impossible to change in any practical sense with the means at my disposal, and some because I wouldn’t change them even if I could. Of course the “I” making this judgement is just the same bundle of things that’s being judged, and they all have some kind of physical cause, however complicated it might be. And the various things in that bundle fight with each other or reinforce each other through means that are ultimately physical means—whether they’re doing it entirely within the brain, or whether they’re doing it by getting the body to take actions that will have some effect on the balance of power.
  • Now, I don’t actually know how stable that whole setup would be if we were given vastly greater powers of self-modification. Even if we had tools for the job that did precisely what they claimed to do, it’s difficult to say in advance where it would lead. Maybe most people would just trim away a few petty neuroses and unwanted bigotries, and end up simply becoming slightly nicer versions of themselves. Or maybe we’d all end up as useless hedonists or raving megalomaniacs. Even if the tools won’t let us damage ourselves so badly that we cease to be sentient at all, there are a lot of ways it could go wrong.
  • KB:

  • You’ve written frequently about how consciousness may affect reality on various levels. Given the way the science has developed over the years, what are your current thoughts about this topic in the “real world?”
  • GE:

  • I’ve always believed that the most plausible position is what might be called the standard materialist view of consciousness: the human brain is matter just like any other matter, and consciousness is simply a property of the brain. That we’re conscious adds nothing to our ability to act upon the world that can’t be accounted for, in principle, in terms of the ordinary behaviour of the molecules from which we’re composed.
  • In fact, I think that’s one of the most important insights of the last three hundred years: human beings belong entirely to the material world, and we’re ultimately amenable to the same kinds of investigation and manipulation as any other physical system. Sometimes this is in the foreground of my work—in stories such as “Reasons to be Cheerful” and “Axiomatic”—but even when it’s not, it’s usually implicit in the technological infrastructure, as it is in Diaspora and Schild’s Ladder.
  • (p.162)

  • I did write three books that violated that basic assumption to various degrees, though the idea in Quarantine wasn’t really connected with consciousness per se; the hypothesis was that the human brain contained a neural structure that was somehow capable of collapsing a superposition of quantum states to a single eigenstate. This wasn’t posited as a side effect of consciousness itself, and the system that did this could as easily have been located in the kneecap or the liver as in the brain.
  • I didn’t believe this was at all plausible when I wrote the book, I just thought it was a fun idea. If there’s any kind of collapse, it most likely happens purely at random, or as a result of some threshold being crossed in terms of the energy or the number of degrees of freedom of a system. But the evidence seems to favour the absence of any collapse at all; it seems more likely that the “collapse” is just how things look when a quantum system becomes entangled with something you can’t access. If you can only make measurements on part of an entangled system, the results obey the laws of classical probability rather than exhibiting quantum interference.
  • I think the idea in Permutation City belongs to the same class of theories as Max Tegmark’s proposal (1998) that every single mathematically coherent structure that would contain observers is real—there’s no extra “fire” that needs to be breathed into the equations, you just need the equations to imply the existence of someone who gets to experience what that particular universe is like.
  • There are variations on this idea, where rather than talking about mathematical structures you talk about every possible algorithm—not because there’s meant to be some cosmic computer running those algorithms, but because if we assume that anything an observer could possibly experience would be computable, then enumerating every computer program lets you enumerate, as a subset of those programs, every possible sequence of experiences.
  • Anyway, this is a fun metaphysical area that people are continuing to think and write about, but I don’t believe it’s something that’s ever going to be amenable to scientific testing. Even to make a novel out of this, you really have to cheat a bit—not just in assuming that the idea is true, but also in choosing what to tell, and in breaking the rules to make things more interesting. If your hypothesis is “Every possible conscious experience (p.163) finds itself in the dust” … what is there to say? It’s the ultimate exercise in scene selection to extract something that dramatizes that idea.
  • Distress put aside the idea of a multiplicity of universes and focused on the anthropic principle in its starkest form: the fact that when we’re trying to explain anything, our own existence is where the process really has to start. We don’t reason “The Big Bang happened, and that caused X and Y and Z …,” we reason “I know A and B and C, which leads me to believe X and Y and Z.” To dramatize that, in the novel I have the laws of physics being up for grabs, with human factions battling to choose the Theory of Everything. I don’t believe that’s remotely plausible, so it’s not a matter of science ever supporting such a scenario. It’s just one way of meditating on the strangeness of the position we’re in, where in a sense we can imagine that the universe might have turned out to be completely lifeless … but in another sense we really can’t.
  • Of course there have been theories around in particle physics for decades which suggest that our own universe might contain billions of different regions where the local details of the physics at low energies are different. That’s a much less metaphysical proposal, because in principle we might eventually obtain direct experimental evidence that one of those theories is true. Then we’d be able to shrug off any sense of the laws around us being especially suited to life or consciousness, in the same way we shrug off any sense of Earth being especially hospitable: it’s just a matter of there being a huge amount of variation in all the relevant parameters.
  • KB:

  • In “Singleton,” you take care to explicitly rule out Roger Penrose’s notion of consciousness as a quantum phenomenon. What is your take on the science of quantum mechanics as it relates to human minds?
  • GE:

  • I don’t believe that quantum phenomena play any special role in the human mind.
  • It’s a little bit tricky to phrase this claim precisely, because obviously we live in a universe governed by quantum mechanics, not classical mechanics, and all of chemistry would stop working if quantum mechanics didn’t apply. It might even be that some surprisingly large-scale and long-lived coherent quantum states are important in biology; I think there’s some evidence for this in photosynthesis, and when it comes to humans, some (p.164) interesting claims about the way our sense of smell is able to determine the shapes of molecules, in which it might turn out that a quantum effect called tunneling plays a role in the receptors of our olfactory neurons. That’s quite controversial, but I don’t think it’s absurd, and it could be that there are many other situations like that throughout biochemistry.
  • There are limits, though, as to how large and complex a system can be at body temperature and still exhibit quantum effects. Everything we know from physics, chemistry, and biology suggests that a neuron is a “classical system”: quantum mechanics is essential in order to understand how its smallest parts work, but once you get above the length scale where you need to do quantum chemistry, it can be understood with classical laws. A neuron certainly can’t be in a quantum state of simultaneously firing and not firing, which is the scale on which one neuron influences another. If every movement of my muscles—which includes every word I speak, and every action I perform, however subtle the psychological processes behind those actions—is ultimately due to neurons operating as classical systems, I can’t see any reason to believe that there’s anything else going on that’s essential to the way our minds work.
  • People sometimes argue that there could be some ineffable subtlety to our consciousness that lies below the level of neurons firing—some quality we can’t put into words, but which would be absent without quantum phenomena. But I don’t think that claim makes any sense. Every aspect of our subjective experience has some potential to influence what we do; even if I can’t communicate to you exactly what my mental state is at some moment, the very fact that I might say “I can’t describe this feeling” is a consequence of that state. So however “private” our inner lives, they can’t be divorced from our behaviour, and we don’t say or do anything without neurons firing and sending signals to our muscles. Anything going on inside our skulls that is too subtle to affect the behaviour of neurons is also too subtle to comprise any part of our minds.
  • KB:

  • In Schild’s Ladder, the characters are distinctly posthuman. Even the embodied people are physiologically far removed from today’s humans. Was there a particular method you used to assign gender pronouns to the various characters? Was there a specific reason that you chose not to return to the asexual pronouns that you used in Distress?
  • (p.165) GE:

  • In Distress (and even in Diaspora) there were people with conventional genders as well as those without, so I used the genderless pronouns to distinguish the two cases. In Schild’s Ladder ancestral gender dimorphism has completely vanished, but I wanted to avoid making a big deal of that, so I thought it was better to use a translation into present day English that sounded as natural to the reader as possible. In Distress when there’s an asex character, that’s strange and significant to the protagonist, so it’s OK to do something with the language that jars and brings attention to itself. On reflection I’m not sure that it was the right decision to keep using those pronouns in Diaspora, and to be honest I’d grown a bit sick of them by the end of that book!
  • As for assigning gender pronouns to the characters in Schild’s Ladder, I just matched them to the names, and I chose the names because I liked the sound of them.
  • KB:

  • In the stories in which people are able to exist in digital forms, I don’t recall any instance of computer viruses or other errors creeping into the architecture running all the programs. In your view, how could such a future stay immune from the sorts of malware that we’re familiar with in our own day and age?
  • GE:

  • The problems we currently face from both sloppy programming and malicious software have more to do with historical, commercial, and social factors than any deep, inescapable facts of computer science. Of all the computer crashes and security breaches to date, I suspect about three quarters are due to trivial things like buffer overflows. More modern computer languages and programming practices already make those kinds of errors much rarer, but there’s still an enormous scope for improvement, ranging from mathematically rigorous verification of computer code to the adoption of completely different architectures than aren’t as brittle as the current designs.
  • In the very long term—the Schild’s Ladder or Diaspora time frame—when we’ve completely rebuilt all the hardware and software infrastructure many times over, and when their robustness and security are life-and-death matters for most of the population most of the time, I’m quite sure there’ll be no systemic freezes and crashes, or low-level viruses. But at a sufficiently high level, of course things can always go wrong in some fashion. In Diaspora, there are (p.166) no crashes in which the virtual environments disintegrate or the polises go haywire and need to be rebooted, but nobody knows if the Orphan being grown in the first chapter is going to be a reasonably well-adjusted sentient being or something dysfunctional that needs to be erased.
  • KB:

  • If scanning technology were currently available and the kinks were all worked out, would you choose to upload yourself?
  • GE:

  • I have no philosophical objection to becoming an upload, in principle, and if you’re asking mainly about identity issues, personally I’m not terrified of the possibility that I’d run amok with the editing tools and turn myself into someone I’d hate.
  • But in terms of ever actually doing it—if it came along sometime in the next fifty years or so—I expect that would depend very much on the context. If it was the province of billionaires, say, and I happened to win a lottery, I’m not at all sure I’d leap at the chance. Or to take the other extreme, if most uploads lived a precarious existence as digital serfs, that wouldn’t be too attractive either.
  • KB:

  • Your posthuman fiction avoids the SF tropes of computerized hive minds or the Singularity. What are your reasons for avoiding these areas?
  • GE:

  • I can imagine an alien species where something akin to an ant colony possesses a mind, while the individual denizens of the colony do not, but I can’t imagine why our descendants, digitized or otherwise, would ever wish to turn themselves into anything similar. We might come up with vastly improved tools for collaboration and communication, but that’s not the same thing at all.
  • I haven’t actually read many works that use the trope of “computerized hive minds,” but it seems to me that it’s just a fantasy based on a false analogy: that you can somehow combine a multitude of human-level intelligences into something that is “as much more sophisticated” than a single human as a hypothetical intelligent ant colony is more sophisticated than a single ant. But the phrase “as much more sophisticated” is just empty verbiage; it doesn’t actually mean anything to say “X is to a human as a human is to an ant.” If you want X to have some ability that humans don’t have—not even humans with access to massive amounts of computing power—you need to spell out precisely what that ability is and why it should arise in that context.
  • (p.167)

  • The Singularity, at least as Vinge envisions it, is based on the same kind of false analogy. It’s uncontroversial that if we could be digitized, there’s a lot of scope for our minds to be made faster, more efficient, and less prone to various kinds of errors, but I see no compelling reason to believe in Vinge’s notion of “transcendence,” in which there are types of consciousness that are superior to our own in a qualitative fashion that goes completely beyond those forms of improvement.
  • In fact, I’d say humans crossed the point about thirty thousand years ago when we gained the capacity to reason well enough to understand any physical process whatsoever, given enough time and patience. We’re completely unchanged biologically from our Stone Age ancestors who could barely count, but every year hundreds of thousands of seventeen-year-olds are learning enough quantum mechanics to calculate the orbitals of hydrogen atoms. Even if our descendants remained entirely unmodified, they’d be perfectly capable of making the same kind of advance, over and over again.
  • As an SF reader, I thought the idea of the Singularity was very entertaining the first few times I encountered it, in Vinge’s novels, but I think it’s been flogged to death by other writers since then. And I’m certainly not persuaded by people who believe that the Singularity is going to happen in real life, though I suppose that depends on exactly how it’s defined. I do think AI of some form is inevitable, eventually, and it’s important to debate the ethical issues and the dangers that potentially arise from that. But I think people who believe in what Vinge calls “Applied Theology”—the creation of AIs with essentially God-like powers, who will either solve all our problems or enslave us—are just deluded.
  • KB:

  • In many space-opera-style universes, you find all sorts of galaxy-spanning wars and accompanying imperial politics. The characters in the far futures of Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence (the Amalgam) seem to avoid all those sorts of pursuits and distractions. How do they arrive at a future free from war and (most) politics?
  • GE:

  • In the long term, technology has the potential to make radical changes to the costs and benefits of any form of violence or coercion. If a person ends up being a piece of software that can be backed up to a billion different specks of dust spread over a trillion cubic light years, how hard will (p.168) it be to kill such a being, or even seriously inconvenience him? And what exactly would your dispute with that person be, if all of your own needs could be sated with some infinitesimal fraction of the galaxy’s physical resources?
  • Of course you can posit cultures, or even immortal individuals, who are committed to exponential growth in their resource use, but since this can’t be sustained in the long term—the speed of light means the raw territory anyone can acquire can only grow cubically with time—ultimately that’s just a recipe for misery and frustration. Natural selection has left us with some drives and dispositions that work against our restraining our own growth, but some of these are almost trivially easy to circumvent, as with contraception, and in time we might choose to make deeper changes to our psychology that allow us to be content with the kind of restrictions that would forestall conflict long before we hit any purely physical barriers to growth.
  • In Schild’s Ladder there is quite a bit of politics, though, because something exceptional has come along that’s shaking up the physical situation on which the culture has come to rely.
  • KB:

  • “Oracle” is a rare foray into historical territory. Why did you choose Alan Turing and C. S. Lewis specifically to have that debate?
  • GE:

  • “Oracle” is one of those stories that is the product of all kinds of chance elements. My initial aim was to write an anti-Faustian tale about technology, partly out of frustration at the widespread cliché that humans are so flawed and technology so corrupting that it can only lead us into ruin. So the basic idea of a time traveler bringing advanced technology from the future came from that, and then the traveler’s motives and the issue of many-worlds quantum mechanics led me to give her a special kind of artificial brain (the Qusp, which ultimately made its way into both the prequel, “Singleton,” and Schild’s Ladder). But once I decided to have the traveler seek out an alternative version of Turing—as someone with an artificial brain might well do—the story became much more about that character, Robert Stoney, and the way his life turned out differently from Turing’s.
  • An alternative C. S. Lewis seemed like the obvious choice for a contemporary antagonist with a very different worldview. Some readers have complained that the character of Hamilton in the story doesn’t (p.169) accurately reflect Lewis’s attitudes to science, but I changed the names deliberately to indicate that I wasn’t trying to create portraits of any real historical figure. Once you change a single thing you’re not talking about the same person any more, and the story’s not at all about what the real Lewis or Turing “would have done” in various counter-factual circumstances.
  • KB:

  • Similarly, Zendegi was a return to near-future SF after novels such as Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence. Why did you choose to set that story in Iran?
  • GE:

  • I’d just spent five years in the company of people from the Middle East and South Asia, to the point where it would have felt peculiar and unnatural not to write something about that region. I wasn’t interested in writing a depressing story about the plight of refugees—I’d already got the impulse to do that out of my system with “Lost Continent”—and the most plausible location for a story with a real science-fictional component was Iran, which is a technologically advanced country with a highly educated population.
  • I’d read a bit about the 1999 student demonstrations in Tehran as part of some work I did trying to help an Iranian man who’d been involved in those protests (and who was locked up in Australia for more than five years when he came here seeking asylum), and it struck me that the overthrow of the ayatollahs was definitely a matter of “when” rather than “if.” But I didn’t want to get too bogged down in that, because Iranian politics are eye-wateringly complicated and the details aren’t all that interesting. So I decided to make the revolution, essentially, a farce, starting with the pious Guardian Council member caught in a car crash with a transsexual prostitute, and keeping the bloodshed to an absolute minimum. A more realistic story of the collapse of the regime might have taken up an entire book twice the length of Zendegi, but this was always just meant as a prelude to establish the context for things that happen later. Nevertheless, I think it captures something genuine about the spirit of the movement and the Iranian culture. In 1999, when the university dormitories were attacked by militias, ordinary people in the surrounding suburbs intervened to help the students, and that’s an image that really stuck with me and fed into many of the scenes in the first part of the book.
  • KB:

  • Are you still involved in refugee issues? Has there been any improvement in recent years in Australian treatment of refugees?
  • (p.170) GE:

  • Things got better for a while, but now they’re bad again. By around 2005/2006, all the people who’d been locked up for as long as six years were finally released, and children were no longer being detained. When there was a change of government in 2007, the incoming Labor Party had a policy that sounded wonderful on paper, in which they said that detention should be used for the shortest possible time and only as a last resort. But they never actually put that into law, and now there are all kinds of long-term detainees again, including people who have been classified as refugees but given adverse security assessments, so they can neither be deported to their country of origin nor released into the community. There have been a lot of suicides in detention this year.
  • I’m not involved in any significant way at the moment. Once you make a serious commitment to an issue like that the demands it makes on your time are almost limitless, and my experience from 2002 to 2006 was that I found it almost impossible to get any writing done. I’d befriended dozens of people who were in very bad situations and needed a lot of support, I was making six or eight trips to remote detention centers every year, and I had people staying in my house who’d been released with no right to work and no income. So I had very little time or mental space left over for writing, and I was living off rapidly dwindling savings and occasional Japanese translation deals.
  • Right now, I’m on a series of very tight deadlines, and I’m being paid about a third as much per book as I used to get in the ’90s, so my only real choice is between leaving this round of the fight to other people, or giving up writing completely and becoming a refugee activist with a day job in computing.
  • KB:

  • In a world with any number of worthy political causes, what was it about the refugee situation that motivated you to that level of action and commitment?
  • GE:

  • The detention of asylum seekers is unambiguously the worst thing that my own government is doing at present. Certainly indigenous Australians have been treated horrendously within my lifetime; they were effectively barred from voting until the 1960s, and they still suffer huge disadvantages in health and other social and economic matters. But the Aboriginal community itself is divided on exactly how the government ought to be (p.171) responding to these problems, as are experts in the relevant policy fields, so for me personally this falls into the category of dire situations that I have no idea how to improve.
  • In contrast to that, every medically qualified person who’s visited a detention center describes them with phrases like “factories for producing mental illness,” and in any case it’s just obvious to me that locking up people for years when they’ve committed no crime is barbaric. But I wasn’t even aware that this was happening until the government started going to extremes to politicize the issue. In 2001 they sent armed commandoes to board a Norwegian freighter that had rescued asylum seekers from a boat that sank en route to Australia. The captain of the freighter wanted to allow the people he’d rescued to disembark on Australian territory—where they would have been taken straight into detention, so it wasn’t even a matter of anyone entering the country undetected or unsupervised. But the government didn’t want them entering Australia at all, so they used military force to prevent that, and then they bribed a small Pacific island, Nauru, to detain the asylum seekers there.
  • This was a hugely politically popular move, but my response was “You’ve got to be kidding.” I never went to Nauru, but I finally found out what was happening in Australian detention centers, and that was every bit as appalling. And once I’d had some contact with the people who were actually locked up in those places, it was impossible to ignore what they were going through.
  • KB:

  • There’s some perennial debate about the extent to which science fiction can or should serve a predictive function. Do you ever write your stories specifically thinking about realistic predictions for the near future?
  • GE:

  • It’s never been my goal to predict the future. Of course, to create a believable backdrop for any story set in the future you have to give some thought to what’s plausible on various time scales, and it can make the work more enjoyable if those details ring true and don’t date too quickly. But I can forgive Philip K. Dick his weird mixture of carbon copies of typewritten documents and holidays on Jupiter so long as his central ideas are interesting in their own right, and I think in the end almost all science fiction will be judged the same way.
  • KB:

  • Looking at your near-future SF over the years, have there been any cases (p.172) that surprised you vis à vis how our future has unfolded?—in other words, something that you thought might be a long shot that seems to have proved out, or reasonable extrapolations that turned out to be off base?
  • GE:

  • The speed with which digital communications technology became ubiquitous certainly makes some of my stories from the early 1990s look clunky. By the time I wrote Distress I think I got it pretty much right—everything in the world is searchable and available wirelessly, so Violet Mosala can pull a sound bite off the Web in seconds to correct a journalist at a press conference—but prior to that I was far too conservative. It’s not that I didn’t anticipate the potential of the technology, but I couldn’t imagine that there’d be so much investment in actual infrastructure, and so quickly.
  • KB:

  • Could you talk a little bit about your thought process with regard to developing the alien species and societies in Incandescence and the Orthogonal universe?
  • GE:

  • As far as I can remember, those are the only two times I’ve written alien viewpoint characters, and in those books there were a lot of very specific constraints arising from other factors. So I can’t really claim to have developed some overarching set of principles for writing about aliens.
  • But in those two cases, I’ve certainly adopted the approach of assuming that the aliens have sufficient mental agility such that their stream of consciousness can be meaningfully translated into ordinary narrative prose. It’s plausible that most sophisticated evolved organisms would have analogs of things like hunger and satiety, pain and physical comfort, and drives related to whatever they do to reproduce, but to get any real story out of them they also need to be able to reflect on their own and other people’s behaviour and to speculate on the consequences of different courses of action.
  • In Incandescence the aliens are the product of genetic engineering with a very particular set of goals, in that their ancestors have designed them to live stably for millions of years cooped up in a tiny ark, in the hope that some of these arks would survive when their home world was torn apart by a neutron star. By design, most of the population is completely satisfied with a life of repetitive agricultural work, with only a small fraction acting as a kind of sentinel for change, ready to respond if there’s some unexpected shift in the environment that requires more flexibility.
  • (p.173)

  • For the Orthogonal books, I was thinking about various possibilities when it occurred to me that it would be interesting to have the protagonist’s species reproduce by division. If a sentient organism divides, in principle that might work in either of two ways. There could be some retention of the parent’s learned skills, and perhaps even some of their narrative memories—although with finite resources you couldn’t go on endlessly accumulating memories down the generations. Or the division process could erase the parent’s experience and leave the offspring starting afresh. I think either of these could be made plausible in a sufficiently alien biology, but in the end I chose the second mode. That led to a set of social and political issues that I think are interesting in their own right, and which seemed to complement the other main theme rather than obscuring it. Having a mind full of ancestral memories could make an interesting story—and I know people have done that, though I can’t think of examples off the top of my head—but along with all the exotic physics in Orthogonal it would have made things overcomplicated.
  • KB:

  • The Orthogonal universe stories delve into reproductive rights and gender politics in more depth than your previous work. Why did you choose to make that a central theme of that trilogy, along with the alternate universe physics?
  • GE:

  • When I started planning Orthogonal, my main concern was simply to ensure that the biology of the aliens wasn’t too similar to our own. But as soon as the idea of reproduction by division occurred to me, it was clear that it could work on all kinds of dramatic, emotional, and philosophical levels. All mothers die giving birth: how could that not be a source of enormous internal and external conflict?
  • We have a certain level of tension in our own species between people’s conscious plans for their lives and the constraints our biology has imposed, but a premise like that amplifies the tension a thousandfold. And just as there’s a range of responses to our own biology, I wanted these aliens to have attitudes spanning everything from complete acceptance to horror and revulsion. Obviously there would have to be strong enough drives and predispositions in this species to ensure that reproduction went ahead, but that doesn’t imply some kind of blanket rule where their innate psychology would cause everyone to unequivocally embrace the whole thing.
  • (p.174)

  • Philosophically, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore the naturalistic fallacy: the idea that whatever nature has produced is the way things should be. In our own society this is sometimes bound up with religion, but I don’t think that’s the only way it arises. So although these aliens have no religion, many of them do take the attitude that nature provides a kind of ideal template for life, and their role is to accommodate to that, not to fight it.
  • As for the gender politics, if women are generally going to divide while they’re still young enough for their co to raise the children, then in terms of political power they’re starting out with a massive disadvantage. Apart from everything else, they’ll literally be a minority, because of their much shorter life expectancy. I think it’s almost inevitable that under these conditions most societies would start out with huge disparities in educational opportunity and reproductive choice.
  • I should stress, though, that none of this is meant to be read as an allegory for the human situation. My worst nightmare would be for some literal-minded gender studies academic to get hold of this book and start trying to map everything into mundane terms, with the division itself reduced to some kind of banal metaphor for societal attitudes to mother-hood. My aim with the biology is very similar to my aim with the physics: to take the axioms seriously on their own terms, and allow the consequences to flow from that. Sometimes there are obvious parallels with our own society, just as there are similarities in the physics, but sometimes the results are utterly alien to us. Science fiction is wasted when it’s used simply to crank out metaphors for familiar things; that’s like mistaking a microscope for a paperweight.
  • KB:

  • Also in Incandescence and Orthogonal, the researchers do everything they need to do without the benefit of electricity or computers. Was that a deliberate choice on your part, and if so, why?
  • GE:

  • In Incandescence, the whole aim of the book was to watch science develop from a completely different starting point. I wanted a culture that couldn’t observe bodies moving across the sky, the way we did for thousands of years, but nonetheless had a different set of clues accessible to them about the laws of motion and gravitational physics. Given the limitations on the size of the Splinter due to tidal forces, it wouldn’t have made much (p.175) sense for them to have developed any kind of well-resourced technological civilization while they were still cooped up inside this rock and still hadn’t come to grips with the kind of science that described basic things like the weights of objects in different locations.
  • In the Orthogonal series something similar applies, but in that case the physics really forced the choice. The Riemannian space-time signature means there’s no such thing as a massless particle, so photons must have rest mass. That causes electromagnetism to work very differently from our own version, in such a way that any kind of electronics would require far more advanced technology and a much deeper understanding of physics than we needed to reach the same level of utility. For example, their electrostatic and magnetostatic forces reverse direction on a microscopic scale, rather than maintaining the same direction the way they do in our universe, so you can’t rub amber on cloth and pick up bits of paper, you can’t play around with lodestones, you can’t create a smooth voltage gradient with a battery that makes a current run through a conductor that makes a magnetic compass turn. So there’s absolutely no prospect of mimicking the kind of discoveries and technology that came relatively easily to us throughout the nineteenth century. If Yalda’s culture had had anything analogous to electronic computers, they could only have built them if they’d already answered all the questions and solved all the problems that the books are meant to be about.
  • KB:

  • When it comes to questions of science and religion, Stephen Jay Gould advocated the “non-overlapping magisterial” view of things, where science and religion can coexist because they deal with separate domains of knowledge and inquiry. Your stories don’t seem to share this view, often focusing on the worldviews in conflict. What is your take on the question of how science and religion coexist and conflict?
  • GE:

  • Almost all religions make some range of factual claims about the world, and it’s absurd to insulate those claims from rational scrutiny. If a religion asserts the existence of an immaterial soul or an afterlife, it makes perfect sense to examine these claims rationally, asking what the logical implications seem to be and how such things could coexist with what’s actually known about our minds and bodies. Philosophers and theologians have spent centuries attempting to investigate all manner of religious claims in a rational (p.176) manner—albeit with wildly varying degrees of honesty, competence, and intellectual freedom—but rather than bringing that practice to an end with some kind of truce, it ought to continue with much greater rigor.
  • Of course, there’s a distinction between facts and values, and as David Hume argued, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” But you can’t derive an “ought” from a “God told me so” either. There will always be a potential for moral judgements to be disputed, and the way they’re argued about and negotiated between people is a different process than the way factual scientific questions are settled. But that’s no reason to surrender ground on moral issues to religious claims of revelation or authority.
  • KB:

  • Do you ever worry that as time has gone on and your novels have focused more tightly on physics (particularly in Incandescence and the Orthogonal universe), that you’re leaving some of your readers behind?
  • GE:

  • There’s an endless list of things an author can do that will annoy some readers of their previous books, but there’s not a lot of point being a writer at all if you’re going to let that dictate what you write about. For example, Zendegi, which is a very accessible book with no demanding technical content at all, had a hugely negative response from many readers who just weren’t interested in the subjects I wanted to address in that novel.
  • Diaspora was more or less entirely about physics, and that’s had the second best sales of any of my novels, after Permutation City. But what I’ve been aiming for with the physics in the later books is to make it much less hand-wavey and to write stories wherein the reader has to take as little as possible on faith. If I have any regret about Incandescence, it’s that I failed to immerse the reader deeply enough in the intellectual revolution the Splinterites were going through. In the Orthogonal trilogy, the science is much simpler but also much broader, and you get to see the characters struggling with all the crucial details right before your eyes. One thing I’m really pleased about with The Clockwork Rocket is that the most important parts of it require no more background than Pythagoras’s Theorem and similar triangles—ideas that are taught in primary school. In our own universe, a lot of supposedly arcane notions such as relativistic energy and momentum are really just primary-school geometry with a twist, and in the Orthogonal universe that twist has been removed so the ideas become even simpler.
  • (p.177)

  • Of course, the SF establishment is incredibly fusty and myopic when it comes to any significant use of science in science fiction. You can find critics who’ve spent their whole careers discussing the genre who don’t think scientific discovery even counts as a form of narrative. But understanding how the universe works is by far the most important story in human history; nothing has had more impact on our lives. When Yalda deciphers the relationship between velocity and wavelength and realizes what it’s telling her about the nature of light and the nature of time, that’s the start of the most dramatic story in the history of her people.
  • KB:

  • In 1993 you identified “Learning to Be Me” as your most successful story at the time in terms of your personal satisfaction with it. What is your answer to the same question today, in 2011?
  • GE:

  • “Reasons to Be Cheerful.” It’s about the materiality of the person, which I think is one of the most important insights of the last three hundred years. But while a story like “Learning to Be Me” mines that same insight for a kind of eeriness and opacity, “Reasons to Be Cheerful” is more about demystifying it and coming to terms with it.
  • In some ways it’s like an Oliver Sacks case study, where one of his patients experiences a terrible deficit as a result of some neurological injury, and of course those real-life case studies already drive home the fact that our personalities are physically grounded. But “Reasons to Be Cheerful” goes a step beyond that, by granting the protagonist a kind of restoration that gives him a deep understanding of the condition we’re all in.
  • Also, I like the style and the protagonist’s voice; I think they fit the subject matter as much as the plot does.
  • KB:

  • In discussions of hard SF and characterization, your name comes up so often that people are starting to refer to the “Egan defense”:
  • … all of that can be forgiven because he brings to his work a unique interest in the character of physical law. Many science fiction writers pay homage to this subject, of course, but for most the laws of nature are there to serve the story: a discursion on the physics of a wormhole, say, would be for most writers an adjunct to a fantastic voyage therein, but Egan has the chutzpah to imagine that the reader will delight in the physics for its own sake. (Harrison)
  • Do you have any thoughts on that subject?
  • (p.178) GE:

  • I do find science intrinsically interesting, and I think it’s perfectly legitimate to write fiction that’s primarily concerned with scientific matters. There are readers who prefer science to be limited to various secondary roles in SF: a pure McGuffin to propel an adventure plot, a way of enabling some exotic technology, or a kind of backdrop to a sermon on the perils of ambition. All of these kinds of stories can be enjoyable, but I see no reason not to write fiction myself in which the science is absolutely central.
  • I don’t doubt that there’s a strand of literature where the main character is so entertaining that you wouldn’t mind spending time with them regardless of the book’s plot. But most fiction is interesting for other reasons, and the characters are there to collide with something outside themselves in order to reveal its shape—even if it’s something as parochial as the cultural mores in an English village. In my own work, I suppose the relationship between the larger reality and the protagonist has fallen into two broad categories: sometimes it crashes over them like a wave they’re trying to escape—that’s what happens to Prabir in Teranesia, and Andrew in Distress—while in Incandescence and The Clockwork Rocket, the characters are actively pursuing the encounter long before it becomes a matter of urgency. The first mode comes from a tradition of protagonists simply trying to live their lives and being, as it were, mugged by Reality, whereas in the second mode the protagonists have seen Reality coming a mile off, made extensive notes about its movements, and started trying to figure out how it could be brought over to their side. And that second kind of plot can only work if the characters are curious about their world from the start.
  • Whether the particular characters are believable or appealing to particular readers is going to be a matter of their personal taste. Certainly Roi in Incandescence isn’t a protagonist who’s been chosen to evoke the feeling “Oh, I know someone just like that!” in anything other than her intellectual efforts, and that might be a problem for a reader with no personal experience of intellectual effort. Yalda in The Clockwork Rocket has a more complex set of relationships with friends and colleagues and family members, and though the alien biology that circumscribes her life is very different from our own, I don’t think it’s a huge stretch for any SF reader to empathize with her. She pushes against her culture’s expectations on several levels, all the way from the farm where she’s born to her treatment (p.179) of a prisoner on a generation starship, but she’s not any kind of saint, and she struggles when her adopted children get bratty. If there are readers for whom she remains unsatisfying, so be it, but that’s no failure on my part, and there’s nothing about her that needs to be “forgiven.”
  • But to those who think it’s the science that needs to be forgiven, what can I say? Most SF critics have only the sketchiest notion of what post-Enlightenment science has discovered, let alone twentieth-century physics, and they have no interest in investing any effort into engaging with the details. If I’d populated my novels with the kind of characters these people could relate to, Yalda would have spent all her time on the mountain trying to decide whether she was in love with Eusebio or Tullia, rotational physics would never have been discovered, no one would have thought of launching the Peerless, and the trilogy would have ended in one volume with an anticlimax rather like Melancholia’s.
  • KB:

  • Looking back on roughly twenty-five years in the field—achieving success, living as a full-time writer, becoming one of the key figures of SF (particularly hard SF)—how do you feel about what you’ve accomplished so far? What are your hopes for your writing in the future?
  • GE:

  • If I think back on all the individual works that I’ve published, I have a range of reactions: there are things I’m still very pleased with, and others that look pretty clunky in retrospect. But overall I’m glad that I’ve ended up spending my time this way.
  • If I’m pleased with one general achievement, it’s to have contributed something to the very small subset of literature that engages in a meaningful way with the full context of human existence. The fact that we are part of a physical universe whose laws can be discovered through reason and observation is the most profound and powerful insight in our history, but most literature—including a large proportion of SF—either ignores it or trivializes it. I’m not interested in fiction that invites the reader to become slack-jawed with “wonder” at the size of the universe or the time scale of cosmology or the strangeness of quantum mechanics, or that treats the now-long-obvious fact that there is no God and we have no preexisting purpose as some kind of belittling revelation of our insignificance and impermanence. Literature that truly engages with reality isn’t shocked by things we’ve known for centuries; rather, (p.180) it delights in the fact that we’ve managed to learn so much about the universe, and it revels in the details.
  • A body of art that contained nothing about the laws of electromagnetism, gravity, and quantum mechanics, nothing about the physical grounding of consciousness, and nothing about the process by which we’ve learnt the rules that govern everything around us, would be like a body of art depicting present day Earth that contained no mention of any human law or custom, no tension between an individual and society, and no representation of a city, a village, a forest or a river. Art that’s blind to the true landscape we inhabit—physical reality in the widest sense—is just absurdly, pathetically blinkered and myopic.
  • So while I’m sure that the individual works I’ve written have only succeeded to varying degrees, I’m still proud to have done something to nudge the center of gravity of contemporary SF some microscopic distance toward a genuine engagement with reality.
  • What I hope for in the future is to keep doing that, more energetically than ever.