Piffle interview (1997)
Interview by Russell B. Farr
First published in Piffle & Other Trivia #26, September 1997. Copyright © Greg Egan and Russell B. Farr, 1997. All rights reserved.
Greg, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Please, in your own words, tell us about yourself.
I was born in Perth in 1961. I have a BSc in Mathematics. I’ve worked as a computer programmer, mostly in jobs supporting medical research of one kind or another. But I’ve been writing full-time now since 1992.
You’ve professed an interest in both music and movies. What are some of the artists you are currently listening to, and some of the best and worst movies you’ve seen recently?
Most of the music I’m interested in comes from people who date back at least to the ’80s: Elvis Costello, Hunters & Collectors, Paul Kelly, The Smiths, The Violent Femmes. I buy new albums from the ones who are still putting things out, but I spend a lot of time listening to their old work. I listen to JJJ regularly, and I like a lot of what I hear, but I’m rarely grabbed by anything the way I was when I was ten years younger. About the only relatively new artists whose albums I own are Beck, and They Might Be Giants.
The best movies I’ve seen recently? I thought “Underground” was very powerful, though that’s going back a bit. “Lone Star”, “Black Rock” and “Swingers” were all worth seeing. And I loved “Mars Attacks!”. “Lost Highway” certainly wasn’t the worst thing I’ve seen this year, but it was the most disappointing, because I admire David Lynch so much, and I think he made some bad decisions with “Lost Highway”.
Do you ever feel the urge to go back into film-making?
No. My technical skills were very much at an amateur level, and by now they’re both rusty and obsolete, so at most it would be a hobby that would take up more time and money than I can spare. Depending on how the technology evolves, I might end up doing some computer animation one day, but to learn what I’d need to learn and then create something substantial would mean putting writing aside for at least a year or two, and I’m not willing — or financially able — to do that right now.
Until a few years ago, your avoidance of conventions and other public appearances was as well known as your writing, much to the chagrin of many. Now, four novels, two collections and numerous Year’s Best inclusions later, do you feel the last laugh is yours?
I think my non-attendance at conventions was never of the slightest interest to more than a handful of people: a tiny fraction of Australian fandom, which itself is a tiny fraction of the SF readership. A story in Asimov’s is read by hundreds of thousands of people; the proportion for whom it would cross their mind upon seeing my name that I wasn’t in attendance at Something-or-Othercon is negligible. But it’s not a matter of having the last laugh, any more than I’m having the last laugh on … I don’t know, the AFL for succeeding as a writer despite never going to their football matches. Fandom is about fandom, it’s a great big social club; science fiction is just the pretext. I don’t think many people in fandom really think otherwise. Bruce Gillespie says this all the time, and if I’m not qualified to know, he certainly is.
In your 1993 interview for Eidolon, you mention that it was “too early to quit my day job forever”. How are the prospects of quitting the day job forever now?
I’ve supported myself by writing since 1992, and I’m probably very nearly unemployable by now — not because my computer skills are all that dated, but because employers are likely to be put off by the long gap. So I hope I can keep this up indefinitely, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to. Even if I have no trouble producing new work for another forty years, the publishing industry is sure to go through some major upheavals.
You’ve been extremely critical of what you describe as “Miracle Ingredient A”, or a truly unique Australianness perceived in much sf written by Australians. While this may well be the case, do you also agree there is a need to support Australian sf writers in order for them to hone their skills?
I think new writers everywhere need opportunities to get published, which involve slightly lower hurdles in terms of quality than the major magazines. And there are fiction fanzines and low-paying semi-prozines all around the world, including Australia, that exist precisely to fill that need. But the last thing I’d suggest is that anyone has a moral obligation to buy those magazines if they don’t actually enjoy the contents. Being rewarded for anything other than the quality of their work is the fastest way to screw-up a writer — and it isn’t only new ones who suffer from that.
How do you see the state of sf writing and publishing in Australia at present, both in terms of how it used to be and how it rates internationally?
Australian sf book publishing has undergone a boom recently, and sometimes it’s easier for new writers to sell a book to a local publisher first, which then makes a US edition more likely. (Though not necessarily a UK one, because the Australian sales are such a big slice of the market for UK editions.) But I think the whole concept of “the state” of SF writing in Australia is meaningless. There are a lot of writers doing a lot of different things. Some years there are more and some years there are less. The idea that Australian SF writers go through cycles of improving and diminishing quality together — like vineyards having good and bad seasons — is just hilarious to me.
Gardner Dozois described you as “Perhaps the hottest and fastest-rising new writer to debut in SF in the nineties”. You’ve certainly established a voice for yourself in the genre, where do you see your writing going from here?
I don’t have any structured grand plan; I just intend to keep writing about the things that interest me — some of which change, some of which don’t. If there’s any recent trend that might be showing up in my work soon, it’s that I’ve put a conscious effort into updating my maths and physics education, which had grown very rusty. I’m reading postgraduate-level physics textbooks these days, rather than relying on popularisations, which is a good thing, I think. Pop science goes flying off in all kinds of fashionable directions, and it often drags a lot of SF writers with it. I’ve been led astray like that myself at times, but I hope my work in the future will come from a much more informed position.
You’ve had three stories nominated for the Hugo Award, including two in the same category in the same year. How did you feel when you heard they’d been nominated? Have you ever given any thought to winning such an award?
I hadn’t given much thought to the prospect of a Hugo nomination at the time it happened, but obviously once you’re nominated, winning one seems a bit less far-fetched than before.
Going back to the 1993 interview, you said that you were “not really qualified to call myself a novelist yet”, and while you were writing 7 or 8 short stories a year you could see that tapering off. Has this happened?
Definitely. I had no short fiction at all published in ’96, and I’ll only have two stories published this year. Part of the reason is the time I’ve spent on novels, but also I’ve been taking longer to write stories lately. “Reasons to Be Cheerful”, which was published in Interzone in April, took me three months. I think it was time well spent, though; I’m happy with every word in that story. Obviously you can never say “No one could have done this better”, but when you can honestly say that you wouldn’t personally change a thing, it’s a good feeling.
Do you want to concentrate more on your short stories, which have been nominated for the Hugo, or your novels, one of which has won the Aurealis Award?
I think I’ll always want to do both; the ratio will vary, but unless I made a conscious decision to stick to a particular form, I’d always find myself with an idea that really had to be one and not the other. And there are advantages to doing both. If I did want to write short stories exclusively, then I’d have to get a day job; there’s no way I could make my living at it. And writing nothing but novels would be exhausting; I’d probably have to waste as much time between books recovering and psyching myself up for the next one as I now spend writing short stories.
Your most recent novel, Distress, was released at the end of 1995 to rave reviews. I believe your next novel is titled Diaspora, what can readers expect from this one and when can they expect to read it?
Diaspora starts about a thousand years from now. Most of human civilisation has moved inside computers; essentially, a major branch of our descendants consists of conscious software. But some conscious software inhabits robots that interact with the physical world, and there are also some organic humans still around. The story concerns a violent astrophysical event which ravages the “fleshers”; that triggers a search by the survivors for a better understanding of the phenomenon, and for sanctuary from any future recurrences. It turns out to be a very long, and very far-reaching journey.
It’s published in the UK on 15 September, so it should reach Australia by November or December.
What else can readers expect to see from Greg Egan in print in the near future?
I’ll definitely have a story called the “The Planck Dive” in Asimov’s early next year, which is basically about why it might be interesting to jump into a black hole. That will be followed by a 20,000-word novella called “Oceanic”, which is too complicated to summarise in a few words. I’ve only just started the next novel, though, so that’s not going to be in print before ’99. It’s called Teranesia, and it’s about evolution, the Indian Rationalists Association, the breakup of Indonesia, quantum mechanics, and sex.
Lastly, is Piffle & Other Trivia a silly name?
noise! interview (1998)
Interview by Marisa O’Keeffe
First published in noise! online magazine, January 1998. Copyright © Greg Egan and Marisa O’Keeffe, 1998. All rights reserved.
Perhaps you could start by talking about Diaspora, what you hoped to achieve with it, and whether you feel you have achieved what you wanted. What direction is your work now taking you in? What drives you in your work? What vision do you have? How has your work changed over the years? What has become more important to you and what has become less important to you (thematically or otherwise)?
One of the main things I wanted to do with Diaspora was imagine what the future might be like if one branch of our descendants ends up inhabiting computers, and to show this world through the eyes of an insider who finds it all perfectly normal. In an earlier book of mine, Permutation City, people are just beginning to be able to make copies of their minds that run as software, and it’s all still very difficult and traumatic, but when Diaspora begins there’s a whole civilisation that has existed in this form for nine hundred years. So instead of adopting a contemporary perspective and treating the idea as deeply unsettling, I wanted to take it for granted and have some fun with the possibilities — without the characters having to have an existential crisis every five minutes because they’re “only software”. I wanted to make it seem perfectly ordinary to be software, and very strange and limiting to have any kind of body, let alone one made of flesh.
I think I’ve succeeded in presenting that point of view, though the more I’ve succeeded, the more off-putting it might be for some readers. If it’s disturbing to read about characters in the 21st century having a hard time being software, it can be even more disturbing to imagine people so different from us that they have no problem with it at all.
Diaspora probably took me about as far in that direction as I want to go. When I write about the far future, I’m not interested in pretending that all our current problems — things like disease, poverty, war and racism — are going to be with us for the next ten thousand years. Human nature is a physical thing, and eventually we’ll transform it as much as we like. But those “temporary” problems are still enormously important to us, right now. So, although I’ve written a couple of short stories since Diaspora which share the idea that in the long run we’ll find software the most convenient form — especially for space travel — I’m backing off now, and concentrating on the near future.
I suppose I have a vision of a universe that we’re increasingly able to understand through science — and that includes understanding who we are, where we came from, and why we do the things we do. What drives me is the desire to explore both the details of this vision, for their own sake — things like quantum mechanics and cosmology, simply because they’re beautiful and elaborate and fascinating — but also the ways in which we can adapt to this situation, and use what we’re learning constructively.
I’m not sure that my work has changed in any particular way over the years, though I hope I’m improving stylistically, and getting better at characterisation. I think Distress was better in both respects than the previous novels; it’s hard to talk about “characterisation” in Diaspora, since the worst mistake would have been to make the characters too similar to 20th-century flesh-and-blood people. What’s important to me in every book is to push the ideas as far as I can, and to be as honest about the subject as I can. That never changes, but it does lead to different trade-offs. If you’re dealing with some fairly elaborate technical issues, as I was in Permutation City and Diaspora, the writing has to be as direct and transparent as possible; trying to make it too subtle or poetic just renders it incomprehensible. In Distress there was room for more expressive writing, and I also felt I could risk leaving some things unsaid.
I was so fascinated to read (in another interview) you say that you believe there’ll be conscious software in your/our lifetime, but that you don’t think you’ll live to see scanning. Can you expand more on this please and maybe give a brief explanation of what you mean for those not familiar with your work?
I’m fairly sure that there’ll be software in my lifetime that’s conscious, though how it will first arise I don’t know. It might be something like a complete computer simulation of, say, a lizard in a virtual environment — in which case it could be as difficult to convince some people that this program really is conscious as it is to convince some people that animals are conscious. Or it might be something we evolve in a computer without any real connection to biology, or something we design to test a theory about consciousness. One worry I have is that we might produce conscious software before we know it, and put the software through a lot of suffering without even realising it. We’re a very long way from that point right now, but ultimately it’s a serious issue. It would be a horrible irony if, just as we were phasing out animal experimentation altogether and replacing it with computer simulations, some of those simulations turned out to be going through just as much pain as any lab rat.
“Scanning” is the term I used in Permutation City for the technique of completely mapping someone’s brain — and preferably their whole body as well — in enough detail to re-create the person as software. In that book, I glossed over the difficulties. At the very least, you’d have to be able to identify all the trillions of connections between billions of neurons, and measure how strong those connections were. It might also turn out that you’d need to know a lot more detail about every individual brain cell: which genes were switched on, and so on. Current techniques, like CAT scans and MRI — magnetic resonance imaging — are still much too crude to give you that kind of information. So even when computers are powerful enough to run a program that’s a “copy” of a human being, it could take fifty more years before we’re able to scan a human being and create the copy.
What do you/did you think of cyberpunk? Do you believe it still exists or was it simply a product of the 80’s? I used to be a big champion of it — in spite of its overwhelming maleness, I thought it was a space that girls and women could go crazy in (as in, have fun in), taking from it the best bits and leaving the rest behind, and write an amazing wonderful literature where we could do anything, be anything and not be defined in relation to men. That’s the beautiful thing about sf — it allows for that possibility. It allows for any possibility (though I do prefer the scientifically plausible ones, which is one of the reasons why I like your writing so much). But now I think of cyberpunk as having been so much defined by a certain set of characteristics that it’s impossible to separate it from them, one of which was the boy hacker hero, overtones of rock star, dressed in leather etc. And that image makes me feel so bored. And unincluded. So I’ve jumped from one extreme to the other... What do you think? Do you have any comments about any of this stuff? Moving away from cyberpunk, is sf in general a good space for people to go crazy in and invent new possibilities for human interaction?
I don’t want to lump all the things that were classified as “cyberpunk” together, because some of them were wonderful, and some of them stank. I think Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan wrote a lot of good books in the ’80s, and they’re still writing good books, and I don’t care which ones are or aren’t “cyberpunk”.
Having said that, reading about characters who think they’re hip bores me witless — even if they’re being sent up, though it’s worse if they’re being taken seriously. And maybe it’s not a tragedy that computers have now become ultra-cool in some circles — though it’s pretty funny to someone who’s been programming since 1975 — but I’m far more interested in ridiculing the whole idea of caring about what’s fashionable. Because once you do care, you’re a slave. A lot of cyberpunk said, in effect: “Computers are interesting because cool, cynical men (or occasionally women) in mirrorshades do dangerous things with them.” If that really is the most interesting thing you can imagine about a computer, you shouldn’t be writing SF.
I don’t know if cyberpunk was worse about women that most other SF, but I doubt it was any better. In general, I don’t think SF has begun to explore the possibilities for trashing gender stereotypes — and ultimately trashing gender itself. A lot of what passes for “SF about gender” just implies that we’re sentenced to repeat the worst mistakes of the past over and over, for the next ten million years. I guess that’s okay if you read it as a cautionary fable, but there ought to be a serious attempt to describe the future as well, and we certainly don’t have that when most of what’s written is either a nightmare of fundamentalist repression of one sex by the other, or predicts a world in which all the men, or all the women, have been removed.
SF ought to be the ideal place to invent new possibilities for human interaction, but there’s a lot of conservatism even in SF. In Distress, the main character falls in love with an asexual person, someone who’s chosen to have no gender at all. One reviewer in an SF magazine fell over laughing at the very idea of this. He literally couldn’t conceive of two people being in love without some form of genital friction.
I was really interested when in the Ibn Qirtaiba interview you said (talking about “deep self modification of the personality”) that you were trying to map some of the dangers and benefits of that. I really have thought about sf as a genre in which people can effect change by mapping out dangers and benefits of any given concept. What do you think of sf’s potential to effect change? A story like “The Moral Virologist” would suggest that you do think it has some potential, but then does sf have a broad enough audience to really touch enough people? Do you think that as technology plays a bigger and bigger part in our lives people will become more interested in sf (because it seems more relevant to them)?
I don’t think SF will ever be enough, but it’s the easiest place to start examining new technologies, a few decades (or centuries, sometimes) before anyone else is discussing them. Unfortunately, when you hear some politicians talking about things like genetic engineering it sounds as if the most recent piece of SF they’ve heard of — let alone read — is Frankenstein, or maybe Brave New World if you’re lucky. And a lot of SF is biased towards alarmist possibilities and disaster scenarios, so I certainly wouldn’t want people to start treating it as some kind of substitute for an informed debate on the facts: say, banning organ transplants from animals just because some hack writes a best-selling novel in which we all die from pig viruses that leap the species barrier.
All I can ever claim to be doing myself is musing out loud while I try to think something through to my own satisfaction. If what I write makes sense to some of the people who read it, or even just irritates them sufficiently, maybe it will stay in the back of their minds, and maybe they’ll think the issues through themselves a few years sooner than they might have otherwise. But sure, it’s a tiny, tiny effect, and it will probably be drowned out by all the noise the media will generate when these things are actually on top of us.
A month or so ago, I read a (trashy) article which listed a whole heap of movies that were out or soon to be out that all dealt with sf in some way. Some of the movies seemed stupid, and their links with sf tenuous, but nevertheless do you think that this is a sign that public interest in and appetite for sf is increasing? Or is it just a fad? Or even, just a coincidence?
I don’t know if public interest in SF is increasing, or if Hollywood will ever let real SF onto the screen. I had high hopes for Contact, and quite a few good things made it into the movie, but the ending was a complete betrayal of everything the book stood for, and everything SF stands for. Or do you mean movies about SF, rather than SF movies? I did read a review in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which discussed three films “about SF”. The reviewer included Chasing Amy, because the major characters are all superhero comic-book creators. The other two were a lame comedy about an SF writer’s relationship with his mother, and a historical biography of Robert E. Howard, who wrote the Conan the Barbarian novels!
What are your plans for the immediate future? What are you working on at the moment? Excuse me being a vulture, but when will we have more new work from you?
Right now I’m working on a new novel called Teranesia. It’s about the Indian Rationalists Association, the breakup of Indonesia, quantum mechanics, evolution, and sex. It won’t be finished until the middle of next year, though, so it will be published sometime in 1999. I also have a new collection of stories coming, called Luminous, but I don’t know yet when that will be out.
The Way Things Are (1998)
Interview by Carlos Pavón
First published in Spanish in Gigamesh, July 1998. Copyright © Greg Egan and Carlos Pavón, 1998. All rights reserved.
Well Greg, first of all thanks a lot for allowing us to have the opportunity to talk with you via the net. We really appreciate your kindness and your generous collaboration in the making of this special issue.
Although I know you’re going to disagree with me, I have to start by asking you about your well-earned status in the field. Now that your career seems to be really taking off world wide, your works are being translated into not a few languages, and you begin to be recognized as one of the best writers in the field, how does it feel to be at the top of the genre?
I’m not at the “top” of the genre by any means, but I do have some loyal and enthusiastic readers, which is very gratifying. I’m very happy with the way things have gone for me over the last ten years. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until 1988 that I decided to try to make a career of it, and I thought it would take at least 15 or 20 years before I’d be able to make a living as a writer. So I’ve been lucky, and I’m grateful.
At the beginning of your career you wrote an unpublished vampire novel, The Effects of Feeding, and your first published stories in Interzone were horror. In the past you’ve said that you might return to writing horror if you “find” a good idea. Have you found any ideas, or are you simply not interested in horror any more?
Those early horror stories worked the way a dream works; they made no sense at all on a realistic level, but in a short story you can sometimes get away with suspending logic and just using imagery to get to the heart of the matter. I think “Scatter My Ashes” was the best of those stories; it was about a kind of endlessly reincarnated being who lives inside every serial killer, created by the media’s obsession with the subject. But when I tried to apply the same technique to a novel, it just didn’t work. I kept wanting to provide a coherent explanation for everything that happened, and horror novels that do that just end up being bad science fiction.
In Permutation City you developed a cosmology which irrevocably led to the conclusion that the existence of God is a logical impossibility. What in your opinion is the alternative to “inventing” Gods for explaining the obscure mysteries science cannot illuminate? And do you think that embracing science as the new God for the third Millenium is also a mistaken way of trying to comprehend the universe around us?
The basis of science is just systematic honesty, and there’s nothing we can’t be honest about, even if we can’t yet see precisely how to explain it. The alternative to pretending that you can explain anything with the word “God” is just to be patient, and to work hard to identify the way things are, rather than the way you’d like them to be. At any given moment in history, science has to treat some things as fundamental: certain laws of physics appear to explain most of the phenomena we see around us, but they can’t themselves be explained any further. Over the last few centuries, there’s been a lot of progress in combining separate laws for different kinds of phenomena into a single, coherent explanation, but there’s always still a level that has to be taken for granted. But that’s not a flaw in the scientific method; it’s just the way things are with our present level of knowledge. There are people who think that if you ask the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” then the only meaningful answer is “God”. I can understand why they feel that way, but I don’t think that’s really an answer at all.
I don’t know what you mean by “embracing science as the new God”, unless you mean abusing science to support particular political and social agendas. Science is a tool for discovering the way things are; it’s then a completely separate matter to decide the way you want them to be. It always infuriates me when I hear politicians and economists using the word “rational” when they really mean “selfish” — or when opponents of rationality also try to pretend that the two things are the same. I don’t think we should look to either science or religion as a basis for morality; science explains where some moral instincts come from, but that still doesn’t tell us whether we should accept those instincts or not. But science is the only way we can hope to get the facts straight, about the world we’re living in, and the consequences of our actions.
Most of your work so far tends to end up leading to metaphysical territories. Most of your characters, by rationally analyzing ad nauseam the world around them, end up transcending rational factuality and embrace metaphysical explanations. Is that because you think science will always have to follow the tracks of “reality”, that we can never attain “total knowledge”, or is it because you like the metaphysical in itself, that you think it’s a necessity and a valuable resort for humans to understand the world?
I think what happens in my novels is that the border between science and metaphysics shifts: issues that originally seemed completely metaphysical, completely beyond the realms of scientific enquiry, actually become part of physics. That happens in reality all the time; if you spoke to a chemist from the 18th century about manipulating single atoms, they’d laugh at you as if you were talking about angels dancing on the head of a pin. There are parts of quantum mechanics where all we have is a mathematical formalism, a recipe for making predictions, and it’s a question of metaphysics to ask what’s “really” going on, because no experiment can say which interpretation of the mathematics is correct. Maybe it will stay that way, but maybe in twenty years’ time there’ll be a single, definite answer — so the question won’t be “metaphysical” anymore. The situations I write about are much more speculative than that, but I think it’s the same kind of thing. I’m writing about extending science into territory that was once believed to be metaphysical, not about abandoning or “transcending” science at all.
Today real science seems to be catching up with SF. Some of SF’s most popular clichés are coming to life with quite a good periodicity. For instance, cloning is beginning to bother society with its ethical possibilities, above all with regards to the cloning of humans. How do you envision the moral debate that will arise from all these scientific advances, when most of the “developed” societies in the world are struggling to accept euthanasia or alternative family models?
Medical technology is probably going to keep offering us new choices like this for the next hundred years, but if we analyse them carefully I don’t think it’s all that difficult to make the right decisions. Human cloning seems to me to be an utterly pointless thing to do — and since the failure rate would be very high, and no one could predict what medical complications the clones might face later in life, I think it ought to be illegal. Some of the debates around medical issues tend to be very emotive and uninformed, but there’s often a more sensible outcome in the long term than you’d imagine from listening to people’s first responses. It’s hard to believe some of the nonsense that was spoken about heart transplants when they were first being done; there were people seriously claiming that the recipient would take on the personality of the donor. Claims that you could “resurrect” a dead child or spouse with cloning are just as absurd, and I think that when the noise dies down, everyone will understand that.
In the battle between strong AI defenders and strong AI detractors you seem to be clearly allied with the strong AI militia. Assuming that the existence of self-conscious AIs is a matter of time, why do you think that some scientists are so focused in trying to prove that the human brain cannot be reduced to a “simple” chain of algorithms? Don’t you think that this is an erroneous point of view, since the question here does not lie in mimicking the human biological brain, but in attaining a different inorganic form of consciousness?
I think you’re referring to Roger Penrose, who’s argued in The Emperor’s New Mind and Shadows of the Mind that computers could never be conscious. Penrose is a brilliant physicist and mathematician, but I think he’s been misled by his intuition on this. The way computers work at present is vastly different from the way brains work, and I think Penrose is ultimately rebelling against the idea that humans are as boring and stupid as twentieth-century computers. Obviously we’re not! But I think he’s let a false comparison between the most primitive computers and the most sophisticated organic brains distort his reasoning. Once computers have been given the same built-in tools, the same flexibility, and the same breadth of education as human beings — which is easier said than done, and might take a century or more — they will be as conscious as any human being.
You’ve explained your Subjective Cosmology cycle by saying that what you were aiming for was to transcend the “normal” visions of the world by “seeing through some subjective aspect of our ordinary picture of the universe, and catching a glimpse of a more objective reality behind it”. Would you say that this is applicable to most of your writing?
I suppose most of my writing is about coming to terms with aspects of reality that go against our intuitive sense of the way things are. It’s hard to make this dramatic these days; four centuries ago, people could get quite upset about whether or not the Earth went around the sun, but at the turn of the century, when Hubble showed that there were galaxies outside the Milky Way and the universe was billions of times larger than anyone had thought, no one but astronomers and physicists cared! So I like looking for new possibilities that are just as shocking, now, as the heliocentric theory was when it was first suggested — ideas about the structure of spacetime, or the structure of the human mind, which show that we still haven’t come close to accepting how strange the universe might be.
You’ve been criticized for aiming too high but not fulfilling the expectations you had created. What would you say to these critics? Don’t you think that a writer (or any kind of artist) has to follow his own rules and despise the rest?
I don’t know exactly which critics you’re referring to, but all I can say is that I try to make every book as true to its subject matter as I can — but exactly what that means with some of the subjects I’m dealing with can be very much a matter of opinion. And when people’s expectations have been formed from the genre’s worst clichés, I certainly don’t want to fulfill them.
Greg, it is obvious that you have a very original vision and your fiction has a genuine mood and voice that is easily recognized as your own, but have you ever considered the idea of a collaborative work? What do you think a collaboration would provide to your writing?
I’d never do it. On a technical level, there’s no problem that a single writer can’t solve with enough research and imagination — there is no character or situation that it’s impossible for me to write about. And on the level of overall approach, I don’t believe that it’s a novelist’s responsibility to present every possible attitude to a subject within a single book; if readers want to read someone with opposing views to mine, there are plenty of places they can find them.
In your latest novel, Diaspora, you have virtually dispensed with human flesh-and-blood beings. By doing so you’ve given your characters the opportunity to develop and evolve with almost no restrictions. Apart from the literary virtues of this recourse, wasn’t it a way of distancing yourself from the object of your exploration, a way to “objectivate” the subjectivity implicit in the fact that you yourself are an organic human being writing about the universe around you?
Certainly, the software characters in Diaspora are much more removed from me (and the readers) than any protagonists I’ve ever written about before, but that wasn’t meant as an end in itself. I was just trying to be honest about what the future’s likely to hold. Some writers are so obsessed with creating characters that readers can “relate to” — even when they’re living in virtual reality, or a thousand years in the future — that they pretend that nothing important will change. I didn’t want to do that. With the power to reshape themselves as much as they like, no one can seriously expect the inhabitants of VR to spend century after century just imitating us. And once they stop doing that, a lot of things that are central to our lives, right now, will either vanish, or come to be seen in a very different light.
Let’s talk about the commercial side of the SF field and your relation to it. Every now and then we see reputable (and not so reputable) authors doing novelizations for movies, exploiting another (deceased) author’s very well-known/well-thrashed universe, committing trilogy (or tetralogy) just for the sake of exploiting a setting or a future which’s been profitable in the past, whatever they feel about it, provided it is going to sell. You once said that you were not eager to “prostitute” your work just for the sake of money, that you would go back to your regular job as a programmer rather than do a commercial by-product. Have you changed your opinion regarding this subject?
The whole point of being a writer, for me, is to have the freedom to explore the things I’m interested in; if you took away that freedom I’d have no reason to be a writer at all. I find writing very hard work, much harder than anything else I’ve ever done; if I tried to write about a subject that bored me, “just for the money”, it would be impossible. So I’m not even faced with temptation; it’s like asking if I’m tempted to try to get rich by digging ditches or breaking rocks.
Anyway, no one has ever waved money in my face and begged me to write Blade Runner vs. Predator in Isaac Asimov’s Robot City. I’m sure it’s obvious to the people who manage these franchises that I’d be no good at it.
Your first passion was film-making. Can you tell us what you think of cinema as a way of expressing an artist’s ideas today? Who are your favorite directors and who do you think will do justice to your stuff in an eventual filming of your work?
I still think the cinema can be an incredibly powerful medium. Films like “Underground”, “Fresh” and “Oscar and Lucinda” moved me far more than anything I’ve read for a long time. It’s just a shame most SF films are so bad. The Coen Brothers are my favourite directors, but I wouldn’t trust them to film anything I’ve written — and I doubt they’d want to. I did like “Twelve Monkeys”; that was probably the most logically coherent SF movie of the decade, which is pretty funny, considering that Terry Gilliam is not what you’d call a very analytical person. “Contact” was a complete sell-out, a betrayal of everything it was meant to be about.
Individuality is a subject omnipresent in your fiction. Do you think there’s room for the total isolation from the other’s points of view, that it is possible to remain a totally individualistic being?
I don’t know whether it’s possible to be isolated from other people’s point of view, but I certainly don’t think it’s desirable. Individuality is a slippery thing, but it doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from everyone else’s ideas; it just means assessing them critically, and making the effort to contribute something original to your own beliefs. If we all had to find the truth for ourselves, no one would even get close. It would be like trying to live with only the things you could build with your bare hands. If you honestly believe that someone else’s arguments are valid, the only sane thing to do is to accept them.
Solipsism is another recurrent topic in your fiction: the Solipsist Nation in Permutation City, the Ashton-Laval polis citizens and the truly solipsistic and uncanny Truth Mines in Diaspora, etc. Do you think that solipsism can be a reliable philosophy to face the enigmas of existence? Do new technologies open a whole new range of possibilities for philosophies so conceptual as solipsism?
Solipsism means believing that literally nothing but yourself exists, and I don’t think that’s a reliable philosophy, even if it’s hard to be certain of anything else. But in Diaspora I was trying to show that there are dangerous extremes in both directions; ignoring the external world for the sake of an abstract life of the mind puts you at risk of certain perils, but abstraction can also be the key to understanding the physical world. Certainly, technology is going to keep blurring the distinction between the information that we get from our raw senses, and both “realistic” images of non-existent worlds and new kinds of data extracted from reality.
Is it true that you have abandoned the anthropic principle, as Brian Stableford commented in one of his Interzone reviews?
There are lots of different forms the anthropic principle can take. If there are multiple universes in any sense — either the many worlds of quantum mechanics, or the evolving generations of universes born from black holes that Lee Smolin talks about in The Life of the Cosmos — then it makes sense to say that the explanation for any special properties that let this universe support life is simply that we wouldn’t be here otherwise. We’re in a universe that supports life for the same reason we’re on a planet that supports life, however rare that is in either case.
I’ve tended to write about far more radical versions of the anthropic principle, where the whole structure of what we consider “the universe” only makes sense from the perspective of a conscious observer. In the cosmologies of Permutation City and Distress, it’s meaningless to talk about a universe without life; the ordering of events in spacetime and the laws of physics only exist inasmuch as they create, or explain, observers. I think I’ve written as much about that extreme possibility as I want to, at least for a while, but there are still some subtler versions that I might explore.
Between the two following memes, which one would you choose and why:
- Truth kills
- Truth heals
I wouldn’t choose either. But I would say that if you don’t know the truth, you don’t even know what you’re trying to heal. The truth is never enough, but it’s a good start.
In the past you’ve said that you were not interested in creating a universe of your own, that the idea of using pre-existing settings and characters was a restrictive tool in the long term. You only admitted the use of the same technology as a constant in some of your work. One of the most incredible technologies you have “created” so far is the Ndoli Device, which appears in one of your most praised stories, “Learning to be me”, and in “Closer”. Are you going to use the jewels again in future stories? Have you thought about the possibilities of a full novel set in a world under the influence of such a pristinely scary device?
Maybe I’ll include them as incidental technology in a novel one day, but that could be tricky, because I don’t want to repeat “Learning to Be Me”, but I also don’t want to treat the jewels as a kind of dumb SF gimmick that the characters just accept unquestioningly. One reviewer complained that I talked about the software characters in Diaspora without going into all the philosophical issues of copying personalities! Maybe that’s a reasonable complaint, because every novel has to stand alone, but after exploring those issues in so many other things I’ve written, there comes a point where both for me, and for people who’ve read the other books and stories, there’s nothing to be gained by going over the same old ground.
You’ve written what you’ve called the “Subjective Cosmology” novels, which include the first (and only) quantum-punk novel, Quarantine, the most thorough exploration of self-aware software, Permutation City, and the frankenscience, TOEs-centered mystery Distress. These three novels are set in the near future (say 50 years in the future) and their time scale is more or less short. Your last novel, Diaspora, is your most stapledonian work to date, it is SF in its largest scale. Are you going to maintain this large-scale framework in your forthcoming Teranesia? What are the ideas you are exploring in it?
Writing about the far future is hard work. If you’re going to do it properly, you have to face the fact that all your personal experience of twentieth-century life, all the ordinary things a writer can draw on without thinking, are irrelevant. So even though I find it worthwhile, it might be a few more years before I can build up the courage to do it again.
Teranesia is set in the early and mid twenty-first century. It’s about evolution, the Indian Rationalists Association, the breakup of Indonesia, quantum mechanics, and sex.
This is the last question. If you visited Greg Egan twenty years in the future, what could you tell us about him?
He’ll probably still be struggling to catch up with real science.
Aurealis interview (2009)
Interview by Russell Blackford
First published in Aurealis #42, August 2009. Copyright © Greg Egan and Russell Blackford, 2009. All rights reserved.
1. Blackford: First, Greg, thanks for agreeing to this interview for Aurealis. I’d like to invite you to reflect on the development of Greg Egan the writer. Your early stories and your first published novel—An Unusual Angle, back in 1983—didn’t give much hint of what was to come. It was a surprise … well, at least to me … when you emerged in about 1990 as a hard sf writer (one who showed a fascination with philosophical puzzles). In more recent years we’ve seen a greater emphasis on narratives set in the distant future and across vast inter-stellar distances. But all this may seem very different to you from “inside” your life and career. From the outside, we don’t get to see the random things that happen to writers: like opportunities that come up, or events that set you thinking in certain ways, or even those times when stories are published in a misleading order. How has the journey seemed to you over the past twenty-five years?
Egan: I think my early work arose from a desire simply to be a writer, before I had anything much to communicate. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was about six years old, and most of what I wrote in my teens and early twenties was really part of a long process not much different from the way an infant learns to speak: you make some sounds, and see how people react. Well, I babbled away for a long time, but it wasn’t until I wrote a biotech story called “The Cutie”, which was published by Interzone in 1989, that I hit a kind of positive feedback loop: David Pringle had previously bought two of my horror stories, and they were reasonably competent and atmospheric, but when he bought “The Cutie” he said, “This is good, send me more like this.” That little nudge in the right direction saved me from wasting another ten years trying to become the next Clive Barker!
It’s not that I wasn’t interested, at a much younger age, in any of the scientific and philosophical issues I eventually wrote about; I even wrote a crappy story about virtual reality when I was about 13. But for a long time I lacked the technical writing skills, the aesthetic judgement, and the intellectual focus to say anything interesting, let alone original, on those subjects.
2. Blackford: Sometimes when I’m reading your work I’m reminded of Sartre or Camus, although I can’t off-hand recall any explicit allusions to them. I doubt that the last words of Teranesia—spoken by Maddy—quite count. She says: “Life is meaningless.” In context, that’s made to seem a good thing. Do you feel any affinity with the authors I’ve mentioned, and at any rate what’s your reaction to the idea of a loss of ultimate meaning, or the idea of abandonment by any kind of divinity—ideas that shaped much twentieth-century literature and seem, at least to me, to lurk somewhere in your writing?
Egan: I liked The Plague very much, and from what I know of the two men’s opinions I feel much more affinity for Camus than for Sartre. But I’ve read them both rather patchily, and they’re certainly not strong, direct influences on my thinking.
The interesting thing for me about “the loss of ultimate meaning” is the chance we have to reflect on where meaning actually comes from, given that it was never divine. When you take God out of the picture, it’s not as if we’re starting from nothing; innate, biological human nature, the thousands of years of history we have and the momentum it’s given us in various directions, and the actual mix of specific cultures and individual people in the world right at this moment, are all a very rich source of meaning. The urge to imagine some higher authority validating our endeavours can be very strong, but what I like to do in some of my fiction is to “stare into the abyss” as Nietzsche put it, and say, “Okay, there’s nothing but us humans treading water in the void ... but that’s fine, because that’s all there ever was.”
3. Blackford: There’s a famous statement by Freud about Copernican revolutions—the idea that Copernicus removed us from the physical centre of the Universe; Darwin removed us from the pinnacle of creation by revealing us as evolved animals; and Freud himself dealt the final blow to our pretensions, by showing us as mentally divided and not even in control of our own minds. This was pretty grandiose and immodest of Freud, but perhaps he had a point about the successive blows that science has delivered to ideas of human exceptionalism. How far are you with Freud on this?
Egan: Freud was an appalling pseudo-scientist, but I’m afraid I’m not enough of a historian of philosophy to suggest who should really get the credit for first grasping the truly important thing about the human mind, which is that it must arise from natural, material processes just like everything else. Once you realise that, most of the naive metaphysical beliefs that have been held about the mind disintegrate fairly quickly under logical scrutiny.
That said, my least favourite slogans about consciousness and the self come from people who say that these things are illusions. Revealing even the gravest misconceptions about the detailed nature of something does not amount to showing that the thing itself does not exist. The self exists as much as anything else in the universe exists. That it doesn’t survive death, or exert its will by defying the laws of physics, or possess detailed motives or memories for every single action we perform, are interesting facts that contradict certain historical ideas and persistent intuitions, but let’s not get carried away: minds still do all the truly delightful and amazing things that we always knew they were doing. It would probably take a glimpse of a billion-year-old alien culture to make me one iota less impressed with the human mind; Freud only made me less impressed with his particular instance.
What’s more, I think there’s a limit to this process of Copernican dethronement: I believe that humans have already crossed a threshold that, in a certain sense, puts us on an equal footing with any other being who has mastered abstract reasoning. There’s a notion in computing science of “Turing completeness”, which says that once a computer can perform a set of quite basic operations, it can be programmed to do absolutely any calculation that any other computer can do. Other computers might be faster, or have more memory, or have multiple processors running at the same time, but my 1988 Amiga 500 really could be programmed to do anything my 2008 iMac can do — apart from responding to external events in real time — if only I had the patience to sit and swap floppy disks all day long. I suspect that something broadly similar applies to minds and the class of things they can understand: other beings might think faster than us, or have easy access to a greater store of facts, but underlying both mental processes will be the same basic set of general-purpose tools. So if we ever did encounter those billion-year-old aliens, I’m sure they’d have plenty to tell us that we didn’t yet know — but given enough patience, and a very large notebook, I believe we’d still be able to come to grips with whatever they had to say.
4. Blackford: One theme throughout your work has been that of personal identity, perhaps most notably in philosophical stories such as “Learning to Be Me”, but pervasively through almost all your work over the years. What took you down that path? What’s the motivation?
Egan: I think the most important and interesting insight of scientific materialism is the one I alluded to in my last reply: the understanding that the mind arises from natural processes. SF has given us some great tropes for exploring what that means, and I was exposed to a certain amount of that as a teenager through writers like Philip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem, but stumbling onto my own ontological riffs with stories like “Axiomatic” and “Learning to Be Me” served as a reminder to me of how powerful the basic insight was, and how well it could work as SF.
Sometimes this way of looking at things might seem remote from everyday human concerns, but you only have to read a few case studies by Oliver Sacks to have it driven home to you that our material nature can impinge on our lives dramatically without the intervention of any futuristic technology. I saw an extraordinary documentary recently about a man who’d developed amnesia at the age of 37, interacting with people who’d known him all his life but of whom he remembered nothing. The filmmakers interviewed the philosopher Mary Warnock and asked her: Is he still the same person? She replied, correctly I think, that there is no right answer to that question. We just don’t have the words to describe the situation.
5. Blackford: As your career has developed, we’ve seen you return again and again to the depiction of characters extraordinarily different from ourselves—they can be uploaded into computational realities, downloaded into physical bodies, simplified, modified, copied, erased … They are about as posthuman as science fiction characters can get. You use such characters again in the new novel, Incandescence. Again, I’m interested in what took you down this path, so maybe you could address that, and then I have a couple of related questions.
Egan: I recall being very bored and dissatisfied with the way most cyberpunk writers were treating virtual reality and artificial intelligence in the ’80s; a lot of people were churning out very lame noir plots that utterly squandered the philosophical implications of the technology. I wrote a story called “Dust”, which was later expanded into Permutation City, that pushed very hard in the opposite direction, trying to take as seriously as possible all the implications of what it would mean to be software. In the case of Permutation City that included some metaphysical ideas that I certainly wouldn’t want to repeat in everything I wrote, but the basic notions about the way people will be able to manipulate themselves if they ever become software, which I developed a bit further in Diaspora, seem logically unavoidable to me.
6. Blackford: Tell us a bit about narrating the adventures of radically posthuman characters. The point has often been made that it’s difficult to create characters who are truly alien—believably non-human—yet sufficiently understandable and engaging that we can accept them and care about what happens to them. How do you approach this? One thing that you seem to do is go out of your way to make everything that doesn’t have to be difficult for the reader as clear and simple as possible, but what are you thinking about when you face this kind of challenge? I can’t imagine that it’s the sort of thing that any writer can just handle sort of instinctively.
Egan: Basically, I just look at things from the characters’ perspective and ask myself what their problems and anxieties would be. In Permutation City people have existential crises merely from waking up as software, because the process is entirely new, but in Diaspora editing and copying yourself is old hat and people are far more worried about problems in theoretical physics that might help them evade a cosmic disaster. Obviously no reader will have had personal experience of either situation, but if the characters’ priorities and reactions make sense in the circumstances, any reasonably empathetic person can relate to them.
I’m also relatively conservative in the way I think our minds will change over time; for example, in Incandescence the characters can pluck various skills and bodies of knowledge at will from a massive library, but from moment to moment they’re really just thinking the way human beings are thinking right now. It might well turn out that in the future, most people’s subjective experience is something that we’d struggle to relate to at all, but there’s not much point writing a novel based on that premise.
One thing readers do sometimes complain about is that the existence of backups of the characters undermines the drama: they don’t really care what happens to someone who’s almost immune to being killed. But for me, the logic of the situation is just so compelling that it’s non-negotiable: if we become software, we will make backups. To anyone whose sympathy for a character depends on them sharing the vulnerabilities of contemporary biological humans, all I can say is: get over it.
7. Blackford: Is it similar when you deal with advanced scientific and mathematical concepts—concepts that might “lose” even readers with reasonable levels of scientific literacy—or do you see that as a different kind of problem? Again, I’m interested in how it feels from the inside to an author writing this kind of work that could be challenging to an audience and must be extraordinarily challenging to create.
Egan: When scientists and mathematicians think about “advanced” concepts, what they’re really doing mostly just involves some relatively simple manipulation of ideas that happen to be unfamiliar to the wider population. There are plenty of card games whose rules are more complex than the rules for doing tensor calculus! So depending on the context, I’ll sometimes just try to give the reader the gist of what those manipulations are, even if they’re going to be a little bit hazy about the things being manipulated. At other times, I’ll do as much as I can to unpack the whole process and demystify it completely. It’s impossible to write about every topic in modern science in a way that absolutely anyone can follow, but I’m not afraid to transcribe characters having detailed thoughts or conversations in which they make sense of scientific ideas, and by eavesdropping on those conversations the reader gets invited into the loop.
8. Blackford: Your themes and characters have made you something of an icon for the international transhumanist movement, something I gather you’re not entirely comfortable with. Or maybe that’s understating it? Tells us how you think, or feel, about that.
Egan: I have some quite strong philosophical disagreements with large sections of the transhumanist movement, but it doesn’t bother me at all that people with whom I disagree on those points might nonetheless enjoy my books, and I certainly don’t feel that I’ve been misunderstood or misrepresented by transhumanists. So it’s not a matter of me feeling discomfort over anyone’s attitude to my work; it’s a disagreement that would be present just as strongly if I’d never written a single novel on a theme of interest to transhumanists.
I suppose the heart of the disagreement, though, does boil down to the difference between science and SF-grade ideas. All SF writers make their fictional technology work by waving their hands to various degrees; even the most scrupulously logical and scientifically informed writer is making choices that let them tell the story they want to tell, rather than undertaking a sober, cautious attempt to predict the future. But an awful lot of transhumanists seem to have lost track of the distinction: they seem to think that anything desirable to them that doesn’t obviously violate the laws of physics and logic — making it a nice SF-grade idea — is actually going to be possible, practical, and maybe even just around the corner.
I had an email from one transhumanist telling me that it was criminal that every intelligent person in the world wasn’t working on uploading, because every significant human problem would be solved once we were immortal software. The blood of all the people who died because uploading didn’t come sooner would be on the hands of those who didn’t hasten its arrival. Now, I’m as much in favour of universal immortality as anyone, but I think an attitude like that is stupendously naive. If we had the technology to upload people in, say, ten years from now — at negligible cost, to continue the theme of surreal optimism — the social and political upheaval involved in coming to terms with that, at such short notice, could easily make a century’s worth of bloodshed-as-usual look like a walk in the park.
Another transhumanist meme that utterly amazes me is the idea that we ought to be handing the planet over to a benign, super-intelligent AI as quickly as possible. For anyone insufficiently dismayed by this prospect, it turns out that the main argument offered in its favour is that we should do this to avoid being enslaved by a non-benign, super-intelligent AI. How do we make either variety of super-intelligent AI? By writing a seed AI so clever that it can rewrite itself, to make itself cleverer — which includes being better at rewriting itself — and so on, until something emerges that is so intelligent that it is effectively omnipotent. Now, this doesn’t obviously violate the laws of physics or logic, and it has made for some very enjoyable SF by writers like Vernor Vinge, but the people who’ve convinced themselves that it’s an overwhelmingly likely outcome in the real world are waving their hands at close to the speed of light.
9. Blackford: Where next, Greg? Is there something you’re working on or something new you’d like to tackle? What can we expect from you in the future?
Egan: I’m about a third of the way through a new novel, which is set in the very near future and involves the geopolitics of virtual reality. Hopefully that will be out in 2010, but before that there’s a far-future novella called “Hot Rock” that I’m pretty pleased with, due to be published late this year in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Godlike Machines.
10. Blackford: Thanks once again. I’m sure there’s a question I should have asked but didn’t think of, so please pretend I’ve asked it. I’ll leave it up to you what thoughts you want to leave our readers with.
Egan: Keep using crappy software, or the AI overlord will eat your children.
Virtual Worlds and Imagined Futures (2009)
Interview by David Conyers
First published in Albedo One, Number 37, 2009. Copyright © Greg Egan and David Conyers, 2009. All rights reserved.
Greg Egan is one of Australia’s leading science fiction authors with over sixty short stories, seven novels and three collections to his name. His novel Permutation City won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and his novella “Oceanic” won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award and the Asimov’s Readers Award. He regularly appears in leading science fiction magazines such as Asimov’s and Interzone, and in Gardner Dozois’ The Years Best Science Fiction series. His most recent books are the novel Incandescence (Gollancz, 2008), and the short story collection Oceanic (Gollancz, July 2009).
What was it that compelled you to pursue a career writing science fiction?
I was interested in both science and science fiction from a very young age, and by the time I was seven or eight it was obvious to me that the best thing in the world would be to spend my life doing three things: writing books, making movies, and working as some kind of scientist. And I did make some attempts at all three, but I didn’t really have the temperament to persist with the last two.
How did you get started?
I wrote a lot of crap for twenty years, starting from the age of six. I had a novel published by a small press when I was twenty-one, but it wasn’t very good and it was more or less irrelevant in terms of my development as a writer. Then in the late 1980s I started writing short stories about biotech and artificial intelligence that just clicked. David Pringle, the editor of Interzone, bought several of them and encouraged me to work to my strengths.
Your first mass-market novel Quarantine was published in 1992. Can you tell us the story of how this book came to be?
I’d been aware for a while that some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggested an active role for conscious observers in “collapsing” the multitude of possibilities that exist in quantum superpositions into single events. I should stress that that’s a very marginal position, and it’s not one I ever believed to be true myself. Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to imagine that only humans had this special “skill”, and that other conscious beings might not be too pleased with us running around annihilating alternatives.
Who are your influences and how did they shape your writing?
I must have read all the major SF that was in print in English in the 1970s. My mother was a librarian, and I had an adult library card from a very early age, so I’d just go and grab every new science fiction book as it came on to the shelves. I grew up with everyone from Aldiss to Zelazny. It’s hard to single out anyone as shaping my writing. Philip K Dick is a great example of someone who dealt with metaphysical themes, as well as virtual reality and artificial intelligence, all of which interest me greatly, and Larry Niven was the quintessential hard SF writer of the 1970s. A few years later, at a time when I’d almost given up on SF, Greg Bear’s Blood Music came along and rekindled my love of the genre. But I don’t model myself on any of these people; they were just inspiring because they worked so brilliantly with the kind of subject matter that makes SF indispensable.
Who or what do you read now?
Not a lot of fiction, these days. I read some of the SF magazines and anthologies, but the last novel I read was A Thousand Splendid Suns by the Afghani writer Khaled Hosseini. As well as general science and technology news, I read a lot of technical material in physics and mathematics, because my formal education in those subjects only went as far as a B.Sc. and I’m trying to keep up with modern developments. There are a number of recent SF novels I aspire to read, but whether I’ll find the time remains to be seen.
You have been described as a leading visionary when it comes to ideas on what the future will be like. Gardner Dozois said that you write fiction that changes “the way that other science fiction writers think about the future.” Where do you get your ideas from? What sources (magazines, books, films, life in general and so forth) provide you with a creative spark?
Basically I just spend as much time as I can reading and thinking about the subjects that interest me, and leave the fragments to collide in various ways.
How do you go about constructing a story?
It usually starts with an idea that I find interesting in itself, and then I look for a character and setting where the idea will have the most impact. For example, with “Reasons to be Cheerful”, I spent a few years wondering how to write a story about what it would be like to be able to choose precisely what makes you happy, before it struck me that that condition would be far more vivid and poignant if the protagonist had first lost the ability to be happy at all.
You write a seemingly equal amount of short fiction compared to your output in novels. Do you prefer one medium over the other?
Some ideas are perfectly suited to short stories, and there’s something immensely satisfying about finishing a piece of writing in a couple of months. It’s also very appealing to me to be able to re-read the whole story from the beginning every time I sit down to work on it — to have the whole thing in my mind all at once. It’s like working on an object you can hold in one hand: a watch or a piece of jewellery. Writing a novel feels more like building a house; you still have a vision of the whole thing, but the relationship that bears to the details and the day-to-day work is very different.
Are there advantages in writing a novel compared to a short story, and vice versa?
When you write a novel, you live with the same setting and characters long enough that you absorb the whole background and it becomes your default way of thinking about things. Rather than having to remind yourself of all the premises of the world you’re creating, it becomes second nature. And it’s a wonderful feeling when things you wrote six months or a year ago start slotting together into something larger.
Which sells better, your short story collections or your novels?
Novels generally, though Axiomatic has done pretty well.
What is a typical writing day for you?
I go for a walk, for about three hours; that’s when I think things over and plan what I’m going to write. It’s good to be able to do that in a situation where I’m not actually in front of the computer, because it makes it easier to try things out in my head and discard them if they don’t work. Then I sit down and write, for maybe four to six hours.
You have a degree in mathematics and work as a computer programmer. Do you believe that science and/or technical qualifications are important when it comes to being able to write hard science fiction?
Most hard SF involves some speculative element — and in some of my own writing the science is extremely speculative — but it does help to have enough formal education to be able to research things a bit and have some sense of the degree to which you’re remaining consistent with real science.
Many of your stories involve transhuman characters built with incredible, almost magic-like technology. Do you believe this is our future?
I hate the word “transhuman”; it suggests beings who have become something alien and incomprehensible to us. I’d much rather stress the continuity between humans in different eras who want much the same thing, but have various degrees of success in achieving their aims. Pretty much all decent people throughout history have wanted to live with the absolute minimum of violence, poverty and disease, and sought to improve their abilities to learn about the world, to express themselves artistically, and to try to ensure that their descendants have better lives than they had. Technology has been part of that all along.
I don’t pretend to know when various specific technologies will become practical; in fiction I really just make choices that suit the story at hand. But unless the species is wiped out completely, or dragged back into a kind of pre-industrial era, “our future” encompasses everything we’re capable of doing over millions of years. Maybe it’s absurd to imagine us uploading our minds into computers and travelling between stars as pure data just a hundred years from now, but it seems equally absurd to imagine that we could survive and flourish for, say, ten thousand years and still fail to do anything that would render us as robust and flexible as uploading would. The only reason, on that timescale, not to do it would be because we’d come up with something better.
Do transhuman characters with god-like powers alienate readers? Are they too far removed from human emotions and frailties that we experience in modern society?
The frailty of our bodies is an enormously important part of our current reality — and I very much doubt that anyone will ever be literally immortal — but I don’t think there’s anything all that strange or alienating about the prospect of having, say, a far more robust body, or back-up copies of your mind. These are just ways of enabling us to do the kind of constructive things we’re doing right now, with fewer unwelcome interruptions. If you asked someone who’d moved from a country with endemic violence, women dying in childbirth, high infant mortality, and no effective treatment for dozens of infectious diseases to a place where all of those problems had been solved whether they felt alienated by the loss of their precious human frailty, they’d just laugh.
Of course, while these problems are still extremely pressing in the real world — not to mention very unequally distributed — I can understand the impulse to treat fiction about our hypothetical invulnerable descendants as somehow decadent or trivial. But I don’t think it’s trivial to contemplate what we’ll do with our lives once we’ve been successful in dealing with our physical frailties.
Do you believe we are destined to colonize other worlds, both within the solar system and other star systems? How far away do you think such a future is, if at all?
I have absolutely no idea about the near-future prospects for human colonies; it’s hard enough right now to imagine that we’ll even go ahead with a single human expedition to Mars. But in the very long term, of course it would be absurd to imagine no one setting up home away from Earth. It would be far easier to do that without our traditional bodies, and I prefer to write fiction where space travel has become a form of communication more than a matter of shifting bulky, delicate freight, but I don’t know what will come first in reality.
Do you think over-population, global environmental degradation and dwindling resources will put the brakes on humanity actually achieving some of the glorious technology and societies that many science fiction authors, yourself included, envisage in their fiction?
Oh, I’m sure things won’t work out the way anyone has written it. When I write SF, I’m almost never trying to map out the future in the manner of someone giving sober advice about the real-world challenges ahead. I take it as given that in the real world, people know broadly what they ought to be doing, and me writing a gloomy book about environmental apocalypse isn’t going to change anyone’s behaviour if they don’t already get the message.
Is it important for authors to educate readers and suggest alternate viewpoints on how the world does or could function, even when writing fiction?
It’s good that there’s a certain amount of that in fiction, but I don’t think it’s an essential ingredient of every single novel, and I certainly don’t think fiction — least of all written fiction, which has such a tiny audience these days — is the most effective way to achieve any kind of urgent political goal.
You have won the Hugo, John W. Campbell and Locus Awards, amongst others, and consistently appear in year’s best collections and many mass market science fiction anthologies. No other Australian writer has achieved your international success. What do you believe appeals about your writing that differentiates you from your local peers?
I’m sure other Australian writers have done as well or better by various measures; if Sean Williams hasn’t sold more books than me I’d be very surprised. But I suppose I’ve been lucky in that I hit on some fresh approaches to perennial themes a couple of times, in books like Permutation City and Diaspora. There’s also something to be said for pushing things to their logical endpoint, rather than playing it safe and staying too close to the way other people are treating the same ideas.
Carl Sagan was once asked which did he prefer – science or science fiction. He said “Science, because science is stranger than science fiction.” Do you agree with this observation?
I agree in part. Certainly, it’s immensely difficult to come up with, say, speculative physics that’s consistent with everything we know about the real world, but also contains something interesting and new. And evolution is notoriously more inventive than most writers’ imaginations.
You’ve been criticized for not developing your characters as fully as you could. How do you respond to this? Is characterization important when the story is about the science?
There’s a preconception in some circles that the characters in realistic fiction ought to have a certain quota of relationship problems, family issues and emotional baggage of various kinds — and some people seem literally unable to believe that a real human being can be more passionate about scientific ideas than anything else, even though the history of science is littered with people for whom that was true. I write about characters for whom the events of whatever story I’m telling are among the most important things in their lives, and there’s not much point writing about science through the eyes of someone who’d rather be down the pub.
You’ve been described as a recluse. You don’t attend science fiction conventions, there are no photographs of you to be found anywhere, and very few people in the publishing industry have actually met you. Is there a reason why you value your privacy so highly?
It’s funny; I spend my long weekends mowing the lawn and visiting friends, and I get described as a “recluse” by people whose idea of normality is dashing around a dreary hotel somewhere trying to get photographed next to someone famous.
Are any of your friends authors or editors, or do they in general work in very different industries?
None of my friends are involved in publishing.
These days authors are often advised that being a public figure helps sell their books. Even maintaining an online journal is encouraged as a means of keeping in touch with fans. Have you ever considered going down this path?
No. I have a web site, which is packed with supplementary material related to my work, but it hardly requires an online journal to announce a novel every few years or a short story every few months.
You turned down a Ditmar Award and your stories never seem to be nominated for the Aurealis Awards, Australia’s two leading speculative fiction awards. How did this come about, and why?
Back in 1996, the rules for the Ditmars chosen by the organising committee that year made one of my novels — which had been published in the UK in December 1995 — eligible for nominations that would close before the book would be available in Australia. Obviously that was a disadvantage to me, but I didn’t really care and I didn’t say a word about it. Then a member of fandom started jumping up and down and proclaiming that the rules had been rigged in my favour, which I found both bizarre and insulting. So I withdrew the book from eligibility and spent a few months trying to get some agreement among Australian SF writers as to what would be a suitable permanent set of rules for the fiction awards. The writers all pretty much agreed, but fandom told us in so many words to mind our own business, since the whole point of the Ditmars was to have something to brawl over. So, at that point I lost all interest in Australian awards and Australian fandom. And my life is far more pleasant now that we’re entirely mutually irrelevant.
Do you read many Australian science fiction authors, or do you believe nationality is not really important when it comes to writing in this genre?
I don’t read much science fiction, period, and I wouldn’t read something just because it was written by an Australian author.
With respect to your own work, do you have any favourite stories?
“Reasons to be Cheerful” is my favourite short story. Distress was my favourite novel until recently, but I think the one I just finished, Zendegi, has taken its place.
What is it that appealed to you about “Reasons to be Cheerful” and Zendegi?
“Reasons to be Cheerful” felt to me like a jigsaw puzzle that couldn’t have been put together any other way; more than ten years later, when I re-read it I’m still happy with every word. That doesn’t happen often.
But I like Zendegi for almost the opposite reasons; it’s full of lots of serendipitous things that could easily have been different. For example, at one point in my research for the book I decided to read the Persian epic the Shahnameh. If I hadn’t done that, I would still have written the novel, but it would have been very different.
You mentioned earlier that an influence on your writing was Larry Niven who is probably best known for his Known Space series. Have you ever thought about writing a series of short stories and novels that together form a future history of the human race?
I’ve written three short stories that share the “Amalgam universe” of Incandescence, and I might set some more stories and novels there in the future.
Since 2002 you have been active in campaigning for refugee rights by seeking the end of mandatory detention for asylum seekers in Australia. What prompted you to do this?
Armed Australian troops boarding a freighter that had rescued drowning asylum seekers, in order to ensure that they couldn’t claim asylum in Australia.
How did you become involved in this cause and what actions did you take?
It took me a while to get my act together and find the groups in Perth that had already been involved in the issue for years. Mostly, what I did myself was write to, befriend and visit a few dozen people who were locked up in the outback detention centres. So it was a matter of providing moral and practical support to people who were under a lot of stress — people who’d been imprisoned for at least three or four years, and had no idea when or how their situation would be resolved.
Do you feel that you had any successes in your campaign?
There was a nationwide movement with thousands of people, and it kept the issue in the media spotlight and provided some counterpoint to the government propaganda. Ultimately all the long-term detainees were reassessed, and virtually all of them were given visas, and while I expect that would have happened eventually anyway, I think if there’d been silence from the Australian community it might have taken much longer.
Australia has recently had a change of government. Do you believe that the rights of refugees will or have improved with the new government?
There has definitely been an improvement, though the legal situation remains far from ideal. The current minister for immigration is the first decent human being to hold the portfolio for a very long time, but there needs to be major legislative change to ensure that people can’t end up detained for years again in the future.
Has your involvement with refugee issues influenced your writing?
Mostly it stopped me writing much for about four years. But obviously it was an eye-opening experience to see people mistreated in that way, and to learn firsthand just how badly a “civilised” government can behave. I ended up writing a short story, “Lost Continent”, which is an allegory of the whole thing, just to get some of the anger out of my system and move on. But more positively, I got to meet a lot of people from backgrounds and circumstances very different from that of any of my other friends.
Have any of your stories or novels been optioned to make into a movie? How do you feel about your work being transcribed into another medium?
There are a couple of short stories optioned at present. The most promising project involves a young Australian screenwriter who’s working on “A Kidnapping”. He’s expanded it out in some interesting directions, and I’d be delighted if it did make it to the screen.
Do you have any science fiction movies or television shows that you’ve enjoyed or influenced you?
One of my favourite movies of the last ten years was Memento. I know it’s not classified as SF by most people, but it was packed with more genuine existential vertigo than any of the movies based on Philip K Dick’s books. Before that, probably Repo Man and Liquid Sky.
You recently completed a manuscript for a new novel. What can you tell us about the novel, and when can we expect to see it in bookstores?
The new novel, Zendegi, is set mostly in Iran. It begins in 2012, when a high-ranking Iranian politician is involved in a car accident in the company of someone other than his wife, and follows the political avalanche triggered by a mobile phone image snapped at the crash scene. But it’s also about brain mapping and virtual reality. It’s due to be published late in 2010.
What other stories can we expect to see from Greg Egan in the near future?
I’m currently researching a novel, Orthogonal, which is set in a universe with different laws of physics. It’s enormous fun, but it’s also hard work, because I’m having to learn to throw out old intuitions about what’s physically reasonable, and develop new ones that fit the new laws.