Thursday 26 February 2015

Axiomatic - Greg Egan (1995)

Greg Egan is a highly regarded writer of science fiction and somewhat of a mystery man. Despite publishing his first work in 1983 he has remained totally anonymous; never attending science fiction conventions or writer’s festivals and nor are there any verified pictures of him on the web. As a fellow Perth denizen I could have passed him on the street for all I know and perhaps I have. Axiomatic is a collection of short stories published between 1989 and 1992. Egan deals with hard science fiction and if these stories are anything to go by he shares something with cyberpunk, with most stories set in the near future and featuring themes that explore the nature of consciousness, biotechnology, technology and its psychological impact and less typically, temporal anomalies.

Axiomatic features some brilliant ideas that are extremely well executed. The first story, The Infinite Assassin, is pure cyberpunk; featuring an agent tracking  down people who take drugs that allows them to move between parallel worlds. It’s a dynamic way to begin a collection of stories and effectively draws the reader in immediately. Many of the stories give the impression that Egan came up with a great idea and then considered what would happen if that idea was allowed to occur in a certain situation. What would happen if the beginnings of ‘the big crunch’ were detected via a time reversed blue shifted galaxy?; well you’d harness it to examine the future and humanity could see exactly what was coming. This is explored in The Hundred Light Year Galaxy, but as always things are not quite what they seem. What would happen if there were axiomatic implants that could convincingly change your perception? Egan explores this possibility brilliantly in both The Walk and in the tense title story.

Perhaps the most fascinating and intellectually stimulating stories are the two involving the Ndoli device, a ‘jewel’ embedded in the human brain that allows conscious immortality when an individual ‘switches’; in other words have their brain scooped out and replaced with a mock brain that is merely an unthinking vessel for a device that will endure for a billion years. Learning to Be Me explores how a sensitive individual copes with the ramifications of doing such a thing. Egan takes this further in Closer, in which the protagonist’s obsession with knowing the unknowable subjective experience of others inspires extreme experiments with shared consciousness.

This is a superb collection of science fiction stories. A few are the kind that you only fully understand a week later whilst having a shower or laying on the couch listening to Fripp and Eno. As a fellow Perthite it was great to read stories with a recognizable Perth environment; whilst there are no specific Perth settings Egan conveys the feel of the place in many of these stories beautifully. I’m a late-comer to Egan, so it is probably a moot point to recommend him thoroughly, but maybe I’m not the only late one.

Monday 16 February 2015

The Children Act - Ian McEwan (2014)

So I’ve finally read my first Ian McEwan novel. Where have I been all these years? McEwan has only been nominated for the Man Booker Prize six times, winning it once for Amsterdam in 1998, amongst a whole plethora of other awards. McEwan was also named as one of the fifty greatest writers since 1945 by The Times. All these nominations and accolades are all very well, but it doesn’t mean much to me actually. My interest has to be piqued in sometimes curious ways for me to approach a writer with enthusiasm. In this case the book cub I run at the library has forced my hand and The Children Act ended up sharing the train journey to and from work with me. Actually it was good company; Ian McEwan is an excellent writer.

The Children Act features a brilliant opening scene in which high court judge Fiona Maye sits surround by her court papers, nursing a drink and being outraged by her aging husband who is appealing for the right to have an affair. The remainder of the novel more than lives up to this initial scene, with McEwan perfectly encapsulating the dilemma of a dysfunctional personal life interfering with professional responsibilities, in this case the complex case of a seventeen year old Jehovah Witness needing a life saving blood transfusion. The Children Act is compelling reading due to McEwan’s deft handling of character psychology and the collision between religion and secularism. Fiona Maye is a finely drawn character and the reader is totally drawn into her world across the duration of this short novel. McEwan gets everything just right with almost cold precision; his writing style is brilliantly tight and sparse. Nothing is wasted, although some readers may find the legal aspects of the narrative a bit dry, however the legal details serve to highlight the contrast between Maye’s hermetic legal world and the psychological challenge of making a sound judgement.

Although I finished reading The Children Act three weeks ago the power of the emotive penultimate scenes are still with me. McEwan’s descriptive skills are such that I can still picture the interior of Maye’s apartment and his depiction of London in winter. Such staying power is always the hallmark of a quality novel. The Children Act has made me an instant McEwan fan. It’s almost made up for the pain of the infamous Finkler Question.....