Sunday, August 9, 2015

Teranesia - Greg Egan

Lana and I had our friend Melanie over last week. Melanie is from  Australia and while I have known her for something like 14 years, I  hadn't actually met her in person before. It's a strange experience, you  have to actively remind yourself once in a while that you do actually  know this stranger very well. Melanie knows a thing or two about me too.  She brought me a gift in the form of this book. Egan happens to live in the same city Melanie does. I have heard the name before of course but I  hadn't read anything by him until now so it was definitely a good choice on Melanie's part. Egan writes hard science fiction  and his work generally includes mathematical themes and quantum  physics. He is also interested in genetics and regularly includes  protagonists with sexual orientations other than heterosexual. Teranesia (1999) ticks most of those boxes so if I were to venture a guess I'd say it is reasonably representative of  Egan's oeuvre.

I'm not holding back on spoilers in this review.

On a remote island in the Indonesian archipelagos, two Indian scientists study a population of butterflies displaying some unusual genetic traits. Indonesia is about to be engulfed in a civil war but they assume that their location and the fact that they are no threat to anybody will keep them out of it. Cut off from the outside world, they are forced to keep their two children by their side. The oldest, a nine year old boy, witnesses his parents get killed by mines. Crippled by guilt, he assumes the care of his younger sister. They eventually relocate to Canada but both brother and sister are drawn back to the island.

This book was an interesting choice on Melanie's part. It is mostly set in a part of Indonesia that the Netherlands has an even more problematic relationship with than the rest of the archipelago. The Moluccas are one of the regions of Indonesia that chafe under the Javanese dominated central government. The population on the islands had closer ties to the Dutch colonial powers and the colonial army before independence, leading to a group of former military personell relocating to the Netherlands after the second world war. In the mean time, the southern half of the Moluccas declared independence form Indonesia in 1950, a cause that was supported by members of the Moluccan community in the Netherlands. After the defeat of the rebellion on Ambon, a government in exile was formed in the Netherlands. The ideal seems to have been abandoned by later generations but this conflict resulted in a number of terrorist acts being comitted in the 1970s, partly fuelled by frustration over the lack of support from the Dutch government in their struggle for independence. In the past decade tension on the Moluccas has been rising again, mostly driven by religious conflict and the Indonesian government's policy of relocating people from the overpopulated parts of the country (read: Java).

Egan seems to have seen trouble coming, in the year the book was published violence flared up on Ambon in particular. His opinion of it is clear. He feels the Dutch empire has been replaced by a Javanese one and that the parts of the country not willing to join the unified state (Aceh, the Moluccas, Papua, Timor) should be allowed to go their own way. As he puts it in the novel, Java should learn to live within its borders. In the novel, several parts of Indonesia manage to gain independence after periods of instability. Even in the post-Suharto unrest, which must have been ongoing when Egan wrote this book, a fractured Indonesia didn't seem all that likely to me. So far, only East Timor has managed to gain independence and that island's history is quite different from the rest of Indonesia. In the afterword of another edition I came across on his website, he doesn't seem to think a civil war is a possibility.

The author shares his opinion with the reader on a number of other topics as well. He is a rationalist and sees irrational behaviour all around him. There is, in other words, no shortage of targets. Besides taking on Indonesian politics, the Australian immigration policy, religion, modern scientific practices, and more extreme feminist theories are also at the receiving end. Both the main characters share this rational view of the world and read pretty much as the author's mouthpiece. They are not miracles of characterization to put it mildly. The dynamic between the point of view character and his sister works reasonably well but the rest of humanity seems to leave him cold. Perhaps not so surprising given the fact that most of them represent some kind of social or scientific folly. Reading this novel, I wonder if Egan could manage to write, say, a right wing Christian young earth creationist convincingly. Whether or not you agree with him, it strikes me as artistically very limiting to stick to this worldview.

The main scientific idea does place it squarely in the hard science fiction department. Egan links the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and genetics in the book. I must admit that some of the genetics in the story were a bit over my head but if I understand Egan correctly, the butterfly on the island has developed a protein that uses quantum states to capture and insert genetic traits into the organism. In effect it means the organism can adapt to any change in its environment within a small number of generations, which would make it, as a species, almost invulnerable. Having access to an unlimited number of quantum worlds, it would always be able to dredge up the right adaptation for any given challenge and even allows for pre-emptive action. A huge ecological advantage to a single species but I do wonder how, as happens in the novel, an ecosystem where all species carry this trait would function. Wouldn't evolutionary processes as we know them grind to a halt? The consequences of that would be very far-reaching indeed. Apply this trait to humans and we will have hit the next stage in our evolution for sure.

Oddly enough, the story arc that Egan completes in the novel is that of the main character. The emotional crisis and resolution of his issues with guilt form the climax of the novel. The science is relegated to a bit of a sideshow in the final chapters of the book and resolved in a bit of a rush. Maybe Egan was trying for a character driven  story instead of an idea driven one? He leaves us with a warning not to ascribe human motivations to genes and evolutionary processes in what must be the most memorable conclusion of a science fiction novel I have ever read: "Life is meaningless." While this is clearly not what Egan means, many readers will wonder why they bothered reading this novel if that is the case.

All things considered, Teranesia is a novel composed of a number of interesting parts that somehow don't seem to fuse  into a cohesive narrative. The main character has his moments, the science is at times absolutely thought-provoking, the satire makes one grin at several occasions, but all of that is not enough to make this a successful novel. Structurally, the narrative has so many problems that the components remain interesting loose bits of information that do not manage to create something more than the sum of its parts. Interesting as the scientific speculation is, the book doesn't fulfil its potential. I thought it was a mildly disappointing read.

Book Details
Title: Teranesia
Author: Greg Egan
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 267
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59780-543-8
First published: 1999

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