The Best of Greg Egan by Greg Egan | Book Review

TBoGEAuthor: Greg Egan

Illustrator: David Ho

Publisher: Subterranean Press

Published: October 2019

Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy

Pages: 736

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“The wormhole makes tangible the most basic truths of existence. You cannot see the future. You cannot change the past. All of life consists of running into darkness. This is why I’m here.”

     – Greg Egan, “Into Darkness” in The Best of Greg Egan

Science fiction fans will be happy to note that there is no such thing as “the best.” This is the appropriate irony of this collection, as it unwittingly, clumsily, and carefully challenges the idea of an idea of an idea into infinity and beyond any foreseeable, preventable, diagnosable end. Time, existentialism, number theory, artificial intelligence, naturalism, simulated reality, metaphysics, human consciousness, religion (consistently battered, bruised, and bullied into a biased, likeable unlikelihood), quantum mechanics, and the existence of frontiers without the capability of definition, except through jerry-rigged laws and yet-to-be-believed theories in their place and paces, make up these thirty years of hard science fiction. Between the seasoned fact-checkers and mathematical zealots to the lighthearted space opera goers and speculative enthusiasts, there stands a haughty anomalist who comes from the nineteen-nineties (it would be criminal and oxymoronic to call him an Australian science fiction writer at this point) Greg Egan who has a hunch for what his best (so far) is, and what a hunchback he has (or not, since keeping up appearances is not his thing, and neither is Google).

From Subterranean Press, The Best of Greg Egan collects cybernetic think pieces with remarkable haptic situations. His depth of field is diverse and perverse, foreboding and familiar, experimental yet elastic. Although these stories manage a clarity that confounds itself as it grows more curious, a lot is still to be questioned despite the seeming disconnects threaded and plot holes filled. Characters are painfully aware and disturbingly made unaware of their second class citizenship and the capitalist and commercialist gains forced onto them in stories like “Learning to Be Me” and “Closer.” The willful ignorance and digital dire straits following the forgone autonomy for transhumanist robot bodies and plastic replicas, the literal turning over of the human brain and body to technology is all cause for concern, but never in time to admit the mindless reliance placed on these drawn-and-quartered alternatives. Before any digital dust kicks up, there are some novella-length companion pieces that bid for the noninvasive engineering of the human spirit. “Oracle” and “Singleton” share a skewed timeline between worlds not too foreign from one another that both raise the question posed by Alan Turing of whether or not a computer can think. That and if a computer can impersonate human behavior, social cues, and desires that may or may not be able to alter the visible and invisible universe, like in transcendental and nature-bending tales, “Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies” and “Chaff” or “Luminous” and “Dark Integers.”

A few one-off stories also hold their own merit in this short story collection, bringing a singular, personal lens to the unnatural made natural. From a man’s brain being kept alive via blood from his wife’s uterine walls to the cultish outbreak of a dermatological disease worse than leprosy that burns the underside of the entire body’s skin, to the acts of faith put to work for an ocean-cultured boy placed on dry land and a chemical engineer and Iranian, Muslim girl inventing a breakthrough her country never knew it could have, it is etymologically more than possible Egan is a lionized substrate of a tin man made human rather the opposite way around. The guesswork is cleaned and polished yet still gets its nose gritted by the grindstone. The outlandishly unorthodox remedies to change the fallible into the infallible, the overwhelming indecision and limitations of physicality are these stories bread and butter or quarks and neutrinos. Whether he be man, machine, both, or none of the above, readers can be certain, and linguists can determine, that Egan is not without the remnant of a heart.

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Red/Blue Pill

The October Country by Ray Bradbury | Review

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Author: Ray Bradbury

Illustrator: Joseph Mugnaini

Publisher: Del Rey Books | Ballantine Books

Published: 1955 (originally), 1996

Genres: Horror, Fantasy

Pages: 336

“It’s poor judgement,” said Grandpa, “to call anything by a name. We don’t know what a hobgoblin or a vampire or a troll is. Could be lots of things. You can’t heave them into categories with labels and say they’ll act one way or another. That’d be silly. They’re people. People who do things. Yes, that’s the way to put it: people who do things.” – Ray Bradbury, The October Country, “The Man Upstairs”

Short story collections embody a certain theme that almost sound the same as the ringing of a bell. Each story told has its own retelling of that same theme to the point of feeling redundant rather than revisited. Ray Bradbury’s The October Country eerily transcends any recycled sense of thematic bottom-feeding. His stories are so different from the next, you cannot help but wonder where the theme starts and ends until you realize it just is. The vulnerability and strength of the human condition are at the core of these stories but each are expressed from the unlikeliest of perspectives. For example, in the stories “Homecoming” and “Jack-in-the-Box,” the outsider becomes the insider and the insider becomes an outsider respectively. The sensationalism over death and how sensationalism is its own death can be seen in “The Crowd.” What is strangely satisfying about these stories is not just their ability to be told on Halloween (the illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini will attest to that) but their representation of simple, ethical truths under the guise of the dark denizens from the October country.

The October Country is not a hard read and its progression picks up speed when you least expect it. An endearing moment I kept recalling and enjoyed the most is found in Bradbury’s foreword May My Voices Die Before Me, where he talks about finding his voice or himself. He shares his love of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allan Poe, and other inspiring writers but noticed their voices could not be his own; they could only be his loves. The October Country is genre-breaking and erodes the conventions of traditional tales of horror and science fiction by giving it more than a sense of brash realism. Here Bradbury emphasizes the emotive silence and subtlety of thought until it bifurcates from a personal peak and reaches an undeniable and ubiquitous inevitability (death, loneliness, insecurity, et cetera).

I appreciate the honesty behind the fiction when some stories’ endings are arguably vague. The fantastical possibilities are presented to you as feasible and believable possibilities in a short, but natural transition of time and place. As Bradbury said in his foreword about his other short story collection The Martian Chronicles, “[It] is five percent science fiction and ninety-five percent fantasy…” (x). No fantasy is worthy of being categorized as fluff when it stands for those hidden feelings lost in thought. The first and last stories of The October Country, The Dwarf and The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone, felt familiar to me, being a writer who is always figuring out what being a writer can and will mean. No one has to be a writer to relate to Bradbury’s stories however. With an emotional intelligence on sentimental, attentive, and precarious levels, The October Country holds eminent potential for relatability.

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It’s Lit!