Unleashing the Quiver of Time's Arrows

November 2, 2014   •   By Mark Biswas

The Arrows of Time

Greg Egan

IN THE SPECIALIZED SANDBOX of “hard” science fiction, so-called for the “hardness” or rigor of its science, there is probably no writer “harder” than Greg Egan.   A mathematician by trade, he unapologetically injects math and physics into his work, complete with diagrams and elaborate appendices. But these references are not fluff; the narrative compellingly relies on the science such that Egan explores the consequences of the underlying scientific scenario at hand to its logical, if always problematic conclusion.  In this way, his novels are the white whale of classic SF thought experiments, “cognitive estrangement” par excellence, so frequently trumpeted, so rarely achieved.


The deceptively simple premise of his novel Incandescence, for instance, explores what it would be like for beings to discover the laws of the universe without being able to observe the night sky. How would their understanding of the universe differ from ours? In many ways, this blindfolded, stumbling after verifiable data in Incandescence, and the corollary suggestion that our own insight into the workings of the cosmos is likewise severely ham-strung, characterizes his fictional project in miniature. His characters believe in hyper-rational, micro-precise observations and the unimpeachably sound exercise of mathematical logic as a way to grasp the knowable world, and they see an intrinsic value and even pure enjoyment in this tightly focused scientific inquiry. A posthuman in Diaspora exults with undiluted joy: “There was nothing in any scape or library file, any satellite feed or drone image, more beautiful than mathematics.”


Egan therefore sees his work as filling a much-needed void in our contemporary cultural conversation. In a revealing interview conducted by Karen Burnham in her book-length author study Greg Egan, the author says: “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 or trivializes it.” If perhaps overstated here, it is difficult not to respect the degree to which correcting this widespread scientific illiteracy is a passion project for Egan.


And so it is no small wonder that his latest, final installment in  “The Orthogonal Trilogy” is perhaps Egan’s purest expression of this belief in the power of science to drive story. He has created a mathematically coherent “Riemann” universe, named after Georg Freidrich Riemann. (This is distinct from our own “Lorentzian” universe, named after mathematician Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, which describes four dimensions: three in space and one in time.) But in a Riemann universe, each dimension is treated equally. This has fascinating consequences: different colors of light travel at different speeds; there is no limit on the speed of light; and generating light somehow manages to store energy (resulting in plants that emit light at night and close up during the day.) Egan’s world-building is incredibly detailed here; on his website, a curious (or confused) reader will find helpful articles and visualizations which describe Orthogonal’s concepts.


In the first book in the series, The Clockwork Rocket, Yalda discovers properties of light that indicate that her world is in danger. She then heads up a project to construct a generational ship called the Peerless that would house scientists dedicated to the task of solving the world-threatening problem.  Because of the consequences of physics not unlike our own relativity, only three years will have passed upon their return, while generations will have passed on the ship. This is key to Yalda’s plan because it is only through iterative progress over many generations that the needed scientific knowledge can be learned.


Thus one of the greatest strengths of the trilogy is the way Egan intertwines the social and political situation of the Peerless with the centuries-spanning scientific process. This process is in part informed by Egan’s wonderfully inventive, deeply estranging aliens. They are amorphous blobs who can form limbs as they desire. Reproduction results in the deaths of the females as they “bifurcate” into a female and a male; the father rears the children. This has resulted in females becoming highly stigmatized, to the point where they aren’t allowed to be educated. Yalda questions this, and finds her ideas challenged by the biologically essentialist status quo as a result.


In The Eternal Flame, Egan continues his growing interest in the interpenetration of pure science and messy sexual politics.  Food shortages make it highly desirable to research fission in the hopes of eliminating them, and in so doing, control the population. When the end result is a female population that has control over their reproductive future, many men see their patriarchal underpinnings crumbling before their eyes. The generational spacing of the trilogy allows Egan to follow this scenario to its likely consequences. When we reach the third novel, The Arrows of Time, released in the U.S. in late summer, the family structure has become upended.


In the fitting conclusion of Arrows, one character feels that he should be entitled to make choices now that women can make their own reproductive decisions. He does not want to fulfill what his uncle sees as his “obligation” to care for his sister’s children in a time when one family in three has no son. Similarly, another character’s mother feels that her daughter should have a son while her brother can raise it because it would guarantee that she would not divide afterwards, and would ensure that she would be able to continue her research without interruption.  In a disturbingly self-interested form of selective anti-feminism, her mother argues, it is “far better to keep them alive and weak than to turn against ourselves and reduce some women to playing the role of men.” In this way, Egan shows how the legacy of systemic social disempowerment and the pace of scientific change are inextricably linked.


At the opening of The Arrows of Time, the Peerless is finally ready to head home, but the political situation makes the original mission parameters complicated. Migrationists feel that the path home is too perilous; they disagree that they have an obligation to save the ancestors and instead push for colonizing other worlds.


Traditionalists argue that there is no evidence to support the Migrationist’s fears. While using scientific reasoning to support their claims, a character notes that the scientific body of knowledge is still a work in progress. Some claims are “better supported than others, but none of them conclusive. And if we can’t reconcile everyone’s intuitions, what counts as a perfect solution?” This is a common theme that runs throughout the trilogy. Because the science and technology is so new and open to interpretation, one must use intuition to sort it all out, and this inevitably leads to conflicting views.  


Since the Peerless’ primary task is to survive, possible experiments and technology must be judged against this metric. Some experiments are denied because they are deemed too wasteful of resources, or too risky. Security becomes a point of contention in Arrows when scientists discover a way to create a machine that captures messages from the future, effectively predicting future events. Proponents feel that building the device is prudent to prevent potential calamities, but opponents feel that it would diminish any sense of free will. Both groups lack the complete scientific understanding to realize the true consequences, so they must make inferences the best they can.


In looking at the trilogy as a whole, what impresses most is that it is able to depict the process of scientific knowledge progressing by fits and starts. These depictions are often idealized and even hand-wavy in order to serve the narrative — the messiness of experiments is diminished, and characters often lapse into Socratic-style dialogues to get information across, but the idealism goes hand-in-hand Egan’s scientific optimism. Yet even if the science is idealistic because the smooth way it operates is incompatible with our own world, it is something to strive toward regardless. The idealism here does not necessarily negate the realism, as there is nonetheless an unmatched sense of verisimilitude in the way Egan depicts science that builds on previous ideas, revising simpler or incorrect models that came before it. For sometimes ideas can only be theorized in such an abstract way about until the technology advances. A perfect illustration of this process can be seen in the revision of the model of the universe. Yalda’s preferred model of the universe was a torus, not necessarily because it was accurate, but because it was simple: “‘It makes for a nice, concrete example that’s simple to work with – but the truth is, we don’t know the real topology. It might be a torus, it might be a sphere, it might be something else entirely.” A better theory eventually appears in Arrows, but even then, it cannot be proven until the right technology is available.


All in all, then, Egan depicts science as a process that works — and there is an unfashionable optimism in Egan’s belief that reason and observation can lead to a comprehension of the universe, or in the Peerless’ case, survival. Certainly, in our benighted times, there’s a lesson in that. On another level, Egan’s characters are admirably optimistic themselves, in that they see the threat to their home world and resolve to find a solution, even if that solution is not yet scientifically possible. Yalda, in particular, asserts the idea that to build the Peerless is an admirable feat of dreaming big. This optimism bears more than passing resemblance to the recent Hieroglyph Project (reviewed here), given that the mission is not unlike the Apollo program: in its moment of inception, the requisite science and technology isn’t yet invented. This vision relies on an unshakeable confidence that their ingenuity will be able to solve the problems ahead.  


Perhaps we should beckon to Egan’s call that the time for a less pessimistic science fiction — that is, a human-driven SF poised expertly between a splendidly complex scientific verisimilitude and a vigorously hard technological plausibility — has arrived.


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Mark Biswas is a PhD student in comparative literature at UC, Riverside in the Science and Science Fiction track.