Much like Diaspora, Incandescence is more of a fictional treatise on esoteric ideas than it is a novel. A loosely convergent tale of two plots, Incandescence is a showcase of Greg Egan's ability to think big--really, hugely, mindbogglingly big. Once again, Egan sidesteps the traditional boundaries of consciousness and identity. There is nary a human to be seen in this book--personalities descended from DNA, yes, but nothing we could call humanity. Incandescence is posthuman to a very literal degree.
The first plot follows Rakesh, “a descendant of DNA” and his friend, whose origins are not so mundane. They travel by transmission into the centre of the galaxy, territory held by the aptly named "Aloof". The Aloof eschew communication with the larger Amalgam society that inhabits the outer area of the galaxy. But they have made an exception by reaching out to Rakesh, who pursues a chance to find a heretofore unknown planet where DNA-based life might have evolved. It’s the type of discovery of a lifetime Rakesh has been yearning for in an age where everything has been seen and done.
The second plot follows Roi, a member of a species that lives within an asteroid in the halo of a neutron star. At the beginning of the story, Roi is content with tending the crops on the surface of the asteroid. Then she meets Zak, who piques her interest in the natural mysteries of their world. What follows is an Eganesque development of physics, from Galileo to Newton to Einstein, in the language and frame of reference of these very alien beings. The more Roi and Zak discover about their world, the more it becomes apparent they need to learn even more in order to save it from impending disaster.
These two plots converge in a very obvious way, but most of the time I found myself more entertained by the latter. It’s intriguing to watch Roi, Zak, and their colleagues deduce, derive, and hypothesize new theories and laws of physics that we take for granted as the received wisdom passed down to us through the institutions of high school and university. I love reading about the history of science and learning how exactly we came to know what we know. Here, Egan shows us how a species that lives in a radically different environment from what we are familiar with on Earth could deduce the same laws of physics through different observations. It’s clever and fun, and even if you don’t know a lot of physics, you should still be able to derive some satisfaction from watching Roi and Zak’s knowledge grow.
The search for the missing DNA world by Rakesh and his friend interests me less. Firstly, it’s kind of boring. Nothing bad ever really happens to them; there are no real threats. We hear that the Amalgam might not let them return to civilized society, on the grounds that this is all some kind of plot by the Aloof and the Rakesh who returns might not be the real Rakesh … but nothing ever really materializes from that. Secondly, as much as I want to sympathize with Rakesh’s desire to make a big discovery and alleviate his wanderlust and boredom, he is curiously ethical and moral. Are there no bad people this far into the future? He eventually wrestles with a genuine moral conundrum, and I admit I liked that. But for most of the book, he essentially does the right thing all the time, as does his friend.
Incandescence also doesn’t quite live up to the expectations set by the jacket copy. I was told that the convergence of these plots would reveal the motivations of the Aloof—and that really intrigued me. I wanted to know why the Aloof were so different from the Amalgam and why they had chosen to make this communication at this time. But we never really learn the answer to such questions. In fact, we never really learn anything. Egan takes us on a great ride, but there is no free T-shirt at the end of it. You just get thanked for riding and unceremoniously kicked out of the amusement park—see you next year.
As a novel, Incandescence fails to sustain interest or present much in the way of a compelling plot. Its virtues lie entirely in Egan’s ability to explore and explain science through very alien points of view. That’s certainly impressive … but I can’t say it’s sufficient to make this book great. In the end I’m still looking for a good story, and that’s where this book doesn’t deliver.