Glory

Today, the lion’s share of my eternal admiration for hard sf, at least the best stuff, at least in principle if not always in execution, goes to its sheer bloody-mindedness, the blatant glee with which it ignores more common modes of aesthetic enjoyment. In a hard sf story, truth really is beauty. Take this paragraph from Greg Egan’s “Glory” (to be found in the Strahan/Dozois New Space Opera):

The world the Noudah called home was the closest of the system’s five planets to their sun. The average temperature was one hundred and twenty degrees Celsius, but the high atmospheric pressure allowed liquid water to exist across the entire surface. The chemistry and dynamics of the planet’s crust had led to a relatively flat terrain, with a patchwork of dozens of disconnected seas but no globe-spanning ocean. From space, these seas appeared as silvery mirrors, bordered by a violet and brown tarnish of vegetation.

There is no poetry in this. With the possible exception of “tarnish”, every word of the paragraph is chosen purely for its ability to explain, to set out the particulars of this planet with as little distraction as possible. Yet the image conjured is wondrous, in a strict sense — it is remarkable; it is extraordinary. It is how the story’s protagonist, a mathematician who’s travelled across a reasonable chunk of interstellar distance, sees the universe. Later in the story, she supposes that an alien race’s drawings and poetry “no doubt had their virtues”, but they seem to her “bland and opaque”; it is a conspicuous refusal of that type of beauty, in favour of the symmetry and solidity of mathematical proof. Sure, you could dress up the facts, translate them into a different form, and sure that could be beautiful in its own way. But equally, in its own way, it’s already beautiful.

OK, I’m exaggerating. That paragraph isn’t what’s great about “Glory”, and neither, really, is what comes after, which is most of the story but which feels a little familiar. (The mathematician has the option of sending a final, wonderful proof, one that explains the significance of everything, to her people, and chooses not to, because seeking after knowledge is, in the end, what’s satisfying.) No, what’s great about “Glory” is the opening of the story, the four pages before that paragraph in which Egan’s dispassionate camera tracks the meticulous unwinding of what is effectively a galactic-scale Rube-Goldberg device. We start with two ingots floating in space, one of hydrogen and one of anti-hydrogen. They are forced together in such a way as to produce a needle of compressed matter and antimatter one micron wide, sculpted such that one trajectory is favoured for the annihilation debris. The needle accelerates to 98% of the speed of light and travels, in the few trillionths of a second of its subjective existence, across light years and into the heart of a star. There, the few million excess neutrons included in the original ingots set up specific shock waves in the star’s plasma, the initial pattern elaborating to create a molecular factory, the products of which are ejected from the star at a velocity just below that needed to escape from the star’s gravity well, on arcs that intersect with the gravity well of the system’s gas giant, which captures them and draws them down onto its third moon. Once landed the machines construct a receiver, just in time to collect a series of timed gamma ray pulses from the needle’s original destination, that contain the information needed to recreate the story’s protagonists in forms native to their new location. (Sympathetic viewpoint characters? Ha! Who needs ‘em?)

Two mathematicians arrive, and go about their separate missions:

Anne’s ship ascended so high on its chemical thrusters that it shrank to a speck before igniting its fusion engine and streaking away in a blaze of light. Joan felt a pang of loneliness; there was no predicting when they would be reunited.

Having read through four pages that depict a process that is precisely, spectacularly, absurdly, predictable — more detailed and convincing than my synopsis above — you can understand why Joan might be a little nervous. I almost wish those four pages could be carved off and anthologised in their own right; because their glory, I think, is that just for a minute they make you see the universe through Joan’s eyes.

11 Responses to “Glory”

  1. Jason M. Robertson Says:

    I’ve nothing to add here, save that I am so very happy to see Egan back and writing.

  2. Niall Says:

    Yes, that’s the shorter version of this post. :)

  3. Jackie M. Says:

    I really do sort of buy what you’re saying, that there are things only hard sf can do… and if you’re going to do it at all, I think Egan is probably the right barricade to die defending. Even so:

    the lion’s share of my eternal admiration for hard sf, at least the best stuff, at least in principle if not always in execution, goes to its sheer bloody-mindedness, the blatant glee with which it ignores more common modes of aesthetic enjoyment.

    I checked with St. Peter’s. They’re all pretty sure you’re going to hell for that one.

  4. Niall Says:

    You should just be happy I only used “aesthetic” once. It was a struggle, let me tell you.

  5. Jackie M. Says:

    You’re going to burn in a very special level of hell!

  6. ianras Says:

    > The mathematician has the option of sending a final, wonderful proof, one that explains the significance of everything, to her people, and chooses not to, because seeking after knowledge is, in the end, what’s satisfying.

    I know little enough about hard sf so I may be displaying nothing so much as the depth of my ignorance in saying this but: Wow, that’s a goofy premise.

  7. Niall Says:

    Which aspect do you find goofy? That such a unifying proof exists, or that Joan decides her people should find it on their own, or both?

    If the former, well, people are searching for grand unifying theories right now. If the latter, I think the idea that the journey is more important than the destination is fairly common. (There’s also a bit more to it than is apparent in my sketch: in the story, the ancient race who discovered the proof went extinct at around the same time, for reasons unknown.)

  8. ianras Says:

    I probably should refrain from speaking about the story until I’ve read it and am aware of it particularities, especially if I’m going to skew negative. But I should explain myself too so I’ll aim for succinctness and say that I find both aspects goofy for different reason. I think the idea of a mathematical proof that explains the significance of everything is goofy because offering an explanation for the significance of everything is outside math’s purview and I think deciding not to send it for that reason is self-contradictory.

    But, again, I don’t know the story’s nuances and that.

    Just want to add that I really, really like the blog. It is good.

  9. Greg Egan Says:

    The mathematician has the option of sending a final, wonderful proof, one that explains the significance of everything, to her people, and chooses not to, because seeking after knowledge is, in the end, what’s satisfying.

    I hope it’s not bad form to comment on a thread discussing something that I wrote myself … but I can’t resist clarifying this.

    The proof in question involves the unification of a large swathe of interesting mathematics. It doesn’t even unify all of mathematics, and it has no practical application to physics, let alone anything else.

  10. Niall Says:

    Thanks, Greg — I had meant to go back and check that after the previous comment. I suspected I’d been too sweeping.

  11. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 2 « Torque Control Says:

    [...] science-fictional “Glory” [pdf]. I’ve written about it, or specifically about the brilliantly barmy opening set-piece, before; second time around it struck me as a bit more coherent, more integrated in its [...]


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