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Thursday, September 6, 2012

"The Eternal Flame" by Greg Egan (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: Last year Greg Egan started the Orthogonal Universe trilogy with the groundbreaking novel The Clockwork Rocket which combined highly advanced natural philosophy speculation - a very detailed Riemannian universe in which there is no special time dimension, though locality and thermodynamics actually impose a quasi-arrow of time on any collection of organized matter - with an intriguing alien race, shape-shifters and with a weird biology - both of these following from the nature of the universe - but quite similar in some ways with us too, this last speculation - beings that have science and try to understand and manipulate their universe being similar with us to a large extent - very well argued for example by famous physicist David Deutsch in his awesome The Beginning of Infinity.

While Mr. Egan has written extraordinary sf before - the novelization of General Relativity in Incandescence just the latest example before last year - The Clockwork Rocket had the added dimensions of great characters, most notably in the lead female physicist Yalda, and of an emotional ending that stayed with me for a long time.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  The Eternal Flame is the second book of the trilogy and takes place several generations after Yalda's time, on the mountain top that became the starship Peerless, currently in Orthogonal space and far away from home.

Being in Orthogonal space means of course that no time passes on the home-world, however long Peerless stays there, hence the strange to us idea that their long ago ancestors from the home-world are still alive at "present", while people on Peerless are born and die, generation after generation, while they try to solve a few monumental problems, most notably being the reason d'etre of Peerless, namely how to save the home world from the imminent - in cosmic time of course - collision with large amounts of Orthogonal matter, stuff that in very small quantities produced devastation and mayhem for no clearly understood reasons for now.

For the biology of the characters and the choices and limitations imposed on their society by it, I refer to my review of The Clockwork Rocket above or to the author's website, with the main point being that reproduction happens by division of the mother into two pairs of opposite gender "twins" called "co's", while the father (generally but not always her co) and usually the grandfather (the life span of males tends to cover two generations) take care of the children, so the phrase "knowing your mother" is a metaphor for an utter impossibility.

While there are exceptions and finer points (eg Yalda was a single with no co of her own, though she had two co-siblings) and females can extend their life span by taking an inhibitory drug, holin, usually its effect attenuates with age and the chances of spontaneous (with no father for the children) fission increase considerably...

The cast of The Eternal Flame is comparable to the one in The Clockwork Rocket, but here there are three main characters whose research, action and personal struggles are the focus of the novel:

Carla, the spiritual descendant of Yalda and the leading theoretical physicist of her time, Carlo, her co and a biologist who abandoned reproduction research for trying to increase the food production only to ask his former coworkers to take him back as he deems himself a failure in agronomy and Tamara, an astronomer and pilot whose impossible dreams of being the one to guide back Peerless to the home world may find an expression in the exploration of a mysterious flying object that comes closer to the starship, but whose very traditionalist farmer co and father, Tamaro and Erminio may have other ideas...

In other important roles, we have Patrizia, Carla's best student, Amanda, Carlo's main research colleague and friend, Silvano, a politician and family friend of Carla and Carlo and Onesto, a physics student of Carla who finds himself better suited for the philosophy of science than for pure research.

At the start of The Eternal Flame, the inhabitants try to solve some major internal problems like overpopulation and manufacturing fuel or a new engine to return home, when the mysterious object assumed to consist of Orthogonal matter is spotted and an expedition to investigate is planned. And so it starts, while when it ends things will be quite different from before.

Quantum mechanics, antimatter and new biology; lots of diagrams, some good interpersonal conflict and a great ending again, though this time a bit less emotional than in The Clockwork Rocket. As much of the fun of the novel consists in following the investigations of the characters about the nature of their universe and of their species, I will just conclude with this quote that perfectly summarizes both the philosophy of the series and why sf is still the most interesting genre of today:

"Onesto said, “Imagine the time, a dozen generations from now, when wave mechanics powers every machine and everyone takes it for granted. Do you really want them thinking that it fell from the sky, fully formed, when the truth is that they owe their good fortune to the most powerful engine of change in history: people arguing about science.”

Overall The Eternal Flame is another outstanding novel from the author and a top 10 of mine for 2012!


chat said...

Wery nice thanks.

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