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Diaspora by Greg Egan
(Millennium, £16.99, 295 pages, hardcover; trade paperback also available at £9.99; published September 1997. Mass market paperback published 6 July 1998, 376 pages, £6.99.)

For the first sixty pages, this book could have been compared to two different people - neither of whom actually figure in the plot. I am speaking metaphorically. The first one would undoubtedly have been male: a dilapidated, crusty old academic; a man possessed of a genuine love for matters geometrical ("That was the cover scan heart of the contradiction! Every vertex needed angles totalling 360 degrees around it, in order to lie flat... while every flat, Euclidean triangle supplied just 180 degrees. Half as much."). This mad professor knows everything about his chosen subject, and goes to great lengths to punt his savvy from reader to reader. Greg Egan needs to pass on a good deal of mathematical information.

Unfortunately (and largely because of such extrapolations), the other spectral figure present for the first sixty pages is a baby, born dangerously premature; fighting for breath, for existence. For approximately one-sixth of the novel, it doesn't look like the poor child will make it. Given all of this, the fact that the reader continues is a triumph of hope over evidence. Were it not for the fact that I had read a fair amount of Egan's shorter fiction, and liked it; and were it not for the fact that I had long since regarded Egan as one of the genre's high-flying ideas men, I might have lost hope myself - and merely stumbled on for the sake of professional duty. So while it is certainly true that this section of the book is slow, and quite possibly in the wrong place, one must persevere. The work gets better.

It begins in the year 2975. Life has evolved, or diversified rather, into three broad groups: there are "fleshers" (sort of present-day human hand-me-downs, the closest to modern day man); there are "Gleisner robots" (machines with human brains); and there are "polises" (computers containing the software made up of uncountable numbers of human personalities). The following extract might help to define more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of each of these biological factions:

"Yatima recalled scenes from the library of fleshers involved in simple tasks: repairing machinery, preparing food, braiding each other's hair. Gleisners were even more dextrous, when the right software was in charge. Konishi citizens retained the ancestral neural wiring for fine control of their icons' hands - linked to the language centres, for gestural purposes - but all the highly evolved systems for manipulating physical objects had been ditched as superfluous."

Yatima is one of the main players in Diaspora: the result of an experiment in something called the Konishi polis. Yatima's opinion, towards the end of the first sixty pages, reflects what the reader has been thinking: "Polis citizens... were creatures of mathematics; it lay at the heart of everything they were, and everything they could become." It is Yatima's task to explore the Coalition of Polises. Along with a friend called Inoshiro, she visits a healthy community of "fleshers" in the enclave of Atlanta, where she is informed by a great "neuroembryologist" all about "bridgers" and about how "some species of exuberants have changed so much that they can't communicate with anyone else any more. Different groups have rushed off in their own directions, trying out new kinds of minds - and now they can barely make sense of each other, even with software intermediaries."

After twenty-one years have passed, it becomes known that the Earth will be drenched, fairly soon, in a tide of gamma rays which has been created by the collision of stars. This catastrophe is set to occur (and how's this for premature ejaculation!) a full seven million years too early. On returning to Atlanta to let the fleshers know they're soon to be pulverized ("the ground is frozen, and the rain's about to turn into nitric acid"), Yatima and Inoshiro are greeted with a good deal of derision. Harsh words, however, are far from the worst of their problems.

Why do the stars collide so long before the expected time? This is what the survivors of the catastrophe try to ascertain. One thousand polises are sent off into space (the diaspora of the title) in order to find the answer. More problems are immediately imminent, however, when it becomes clear that more danger is nigh and that the only chance of escape is to disappear into an unseeable, unknowable universe.

Greg Egan, as I mentioned before, is a real ideas man. Even the distancing effect of "ve" and "ver" serves more of a purpose than one believes at first it will. Egan seems to have a mind full of impossible knots - which he then goes out of his way to describe and untie for his audience. In this novel he goes for the very big picture.

A few years ago I watched a then-recently made documentary about the religious order called the Amish. They mistrust technology and live in communities into which the twentieth century has scarcely intruded. On camera a young Amish child asked, with conspiratorial wonder, if it was true: had somebody really landed on the moon? That epoch from twenty-five or so years earlier was still only a whispered rumour in the Amish camps - or at least among the younger generations there. Having finished Diaspora I wondered what that same child might have made of some of the brain-churning conceits in this interesting novel. Assuming, of course, that the child could read. Egan has scattered his new seeds now; as far as ideas are concerned he is flying in a sky on his own. But I wish he'd worked a little more on making those opening pages swing harder.

Review by David Mathew.

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© David Mathew 3 October 1998