Sci Fi Friday: meet Greg Egan

The Modern Masters of Science Fiction series is devoted to books that survey the work of individual authors who continue to inspire and advance science fiction.

In her MMSF title Greg Egan, Karen Burnham examines the work of an author who unapologetically delves into mathematics, physics, and other disciplines in his prose.

Burnham is uniquely positioned to provide the first in-depth study of Egan’s science-heavy oeuvre as she is a working physicist and engineer.

Greg Egan (1961- ) writes works that challenge readers with rigorous, deeply-informed scientific speculation. Egan’s 1994 novel Permutation City won the John W. Campbell Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year. The book’s use of real scientific study to examine the prospects of artificial life and simulated reality put him in the vanguard of the hard science fiction renaissance of the 1990s.

Egan is press-shy, but Burnham’s MMSF book contains a rare interview with the novelist.

“I do find science intrinsically interesting,” Egan tells Burnham, “and I think it’s perfectly legitimate to write fiction that’s primarily concerned with scientific matters. There are readers who prefer science to be limited to various secondary roles in SF: a pure McGuffin to propel an adventure plot, a way of enabling some exotic technology, or a kind of backdrop to a sermon on the perils of ambition. All of these kinds of stories can be enjoyable, but I see no reason not to write fiction myself in which the science is absolutely central.”

For Egan, however, science’s centrality goes beyond working within the boundaries of realistic physics and biology. Science serves as a wellspring of conflict, that essential building block of telling a good story. As a character in his novel Eternal Flame puts it, “the most powerful engine of change in history: people arguing about science.” And argue his characters do, about facts and philosophy, about ethics and uses. Yet science represents far more than a source of whiz-bang plot points. Time and again, Egan has insisted that it’s role in the human condition is on a par with art or spirituality.

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