I first encountered Greg Egan when I read his novel Quarantine (1992). It impressed me greatly, yet, I have not followed his career closely. There is just a tremendous amount of good science fiction to read. I have read the reviews of his following novels and read a few of his shorter stories in the best-of-the-year annuals. Egan writes hard science fiction of the super-science variety, projecting humanity into the far future. Egan is far more hopeful for the potential of our species than I am.
“Glory” is about Joan and Anne, galactic citizens of the Amalgam, visiting a world that has not yet developed interstellar travel. Their adventure begins with two ingots of metallic hydrogen, one made of matter and the other anti-matter. These ingots are sculpted with neutrons and antineutrons until they are compressed into a needle one micron wide. I’ll quote Egan to give you a sample of his imagination:
The needle was structured like a meticulously crafted firework, and its outer layers ignited first. No external casing could have channeled this blast, but the pattern of tensions woven into the needle’s construction favored one direction for the debris to be expelled. Particles streamed backward; the needle moved forward. The shock of acceleration could not have been borne by anything built from atomic-scale matter, but the pressure bearing down on the core of the needle prolonged its life, delaying the inevitable. Layer after layer burned itself away, blasting the dwindling remnant forward ever faster. By the time the needle had shrunk to a tenth of its original size, it was moving at ninety-eight percent of light speed; to a bystander, this could scarcely have been improved upon, but from the needle’s perspective, there was still room to slash its journey’s duration by orders of magnitude. When just one thousandth of the needle remained, its time, compared to the neighboring stars, was passing five hundred times more slowly. Still the layers kept burning, the protective clusters unraveling as the pressure on them was released. The needle could only reach close enough to light speed to slow down time as much as it required if it could sacrifice a large enough proportion of its remaining mass. The core of the needle could only survive for a few trillionths of a second, while its journey would take two hundred million seconds as judged by the stars. The proportions had been carefully matched, though: out of the two kilograms of matter and antimatter that had been woven together at the launch, only a few million neutrons were needed as the final payload. By one measure, seven years passed. For the needle, its last trillionths of a second unwound, its final layers of fuel blew away, and at the moment its core was ready to explode, it reached its destination, plunging from the near-vacuum of space straight into the heart of a star. Even here, the density of matter was insufficient to stabilize the core, yet far too high to allow it to pass unhindered. The core was torn apart. But it did not go quietly, and the shock waves it carved through the fusing plasma endured for a million kilometers: all the way through to the cooler outer layers on the opposite side of the star. These shock waves were shaped by the payload that had formed them, and though the initial pattern imprinted on them by the disintegrating cluster of neutrons was enlarged and blurred by its journey, on an atomic scale it remained sharply defined. Like a mold stamped into the seething plasma, it encouraged ionized molecular fragments to slip into the troughs and furrows that matched their shape, and then brought them together to react in ways that the plasma’s random collisions would never have allowed. In effect, the shock waves formed a web of catalysts, carefully laid out in both time and space, briefly transforming a small corner of the star into a chemical factory operating on a nanometer scale. The products of this factory sprayed out of the star, riding the last traces of the shock wave’s momentum: a few nanograms of elaborate, carbon-rich molecules, sheathed in a protective fullerene weave. Traveling at seven hundred kilometers per second, a fraction below the velocity needed to escape from the star completely, they climbed out of its gravity well, slowing as they ascended. Four years passed, but the molecules were stable against the ravages of space. By the time they’d traveled a billion kilometers, they had almost come to a halt, and they would have fallen back to die in the fires of the star that had forged them if their journey had not been timed so that the star’s third planet, a gas giant, was waiting to urge them forward. As they fell toward it, the giant’s third moon moved across their path. Eleven years after the needle’s launch, its molecular offspring rained down on to the methane snow.
This is not the science fiction I grew up reading. I want to quote the whole opening that explains how Joan and Anne get to their destination, but that would involve quoting too much. I strongly recommend reading the story online just to experience the dazzling science fictional thinking of Greg Egan. I have no idea if any of his razzle-dazzling sleight of hand is scientifically possible, but Egan is a convincing preacher of the faith, of the faith that humanity has no limits in this universe.
However, once Egan gets Joan and Anne to the planet of Tira and Ghahar, two rival nations of beings call Noudah, the story slows down and becomes almost mundane in its plot. Joan and Anne are evidently what humans become in the far future, and they can download their essence (mind, soul?) into any machine or being. They appear to the Tiran and Ghahari in Noudah bodies. Joan and Anne each arrange to be intercepted by the two warring nations. Their stated and honest goal is to study the Niah, a race of sentient beings that had existed prior to the Noudah on this planet, and who were premiere mathematicians of the galaxy. The Niah existed for three million years but had disappeared over a million years earlier, leaving only tablets with their mathematical insights carved into them. Joan and Anne somehow know that the Noudah are building dams on Niah sites and want to excavate them before they are lost.
The real purpose of the story I believe is for Egan to present the idea of Seekers and Spreaders. The Niah are a race of seekers of knowledge. The Noudah are spreaders, wanting to conquer and colonize the galaxy. They are paranoid, fearing Joan and Anne are from another race of spreaders. Joan and Anne are really seekers though, just wanting to understand Niah math, so they have to do everything possible not to appear as spreaders.
Obviously, Homo sapiens will be spreaders. Our species is a cancerous growth spreading to every nook and cranny of Earth, and if we travel to other stellar systems, we’ll spread across those worlds too. (Hint to the title of Egan’s novel, Quarantine.)
I don’t know why Egan thinks we’ll become seekers in the future. Are Joan and Anne still Homo sapiens? Their minds can be copied and backed up, but are their minds like ours? I believe as long as our minds are tied to our biology we’ll be spreaders. But if we’re digitized maybe we could become seekers.
Here’s the thing about me and contemporary science fiction. I just don’t buy the concept of brain downloading. It’s as believable as everlasting life. We like to think we’re the Crown of Creation, but what happens when we discover we’re no more important to the universe than naked mole rats? The urge to spread is just a way to existentially define meaning to ourselves by the amount of territory we can cover. We might be sentient, but we’re no more significant than nitrogen to reality.
Science fiction writers are often philosophers. Science fiction often promotes the manifest destiny of the final frontier. Greg Egan obviously knows that spreading is pointless. But isn’t seeking equally pointless? The universe doesn’t care what we do. So does it matter if we or any other sentient beings spread or seek? And are those really the only choices for how to keep busy while existing in reality? What about art or hedonism? Sports and games? What about the Zen of just being?
“Glory” is a fun story. Most readers will just accept it as a story. I think of it as a kind of religious fantasy, showing faith in a different kind of heaven. As I read the 38 stories in this anthology, I experience them as stories, but also experience them as fears and hopes for the future.
James Wallace Harris, March 20, 2019