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Teranesia by Greg Egan (Victor Gollancz, £16.99, 249 pages, hardback, published 26 August 1999; paperback, £5.99, 249 pages, published 10 August 2000.)

Whatever pitfalls yawn open for the writer of science-fiction-based in alternative-but-existing cultures, Greg Egan has managed to avoid them; and furthermore, he has produced his best, and most human, work to date - an impressive work of literature.

cover scan One obvious coincidence - and perhaps not a great coincidence, given our pre-determined taste for self-destruction - is the violent troubles in Timor and the opening plot-square, which involves a messy coup. In the words of the main protagonist's father, there has been: "a coup in Jakarta. Ambon's been placed under martial law... I haven't been able to get through to Tual, so I'm not sure what's happening there... The President's under house arrest... there are about a thousand people holding a vigil outside. The security forces have left them alone so far, which is something." But which turns out to be nothing: the children, Prabir and his baby sister, are orphaned shortly afterwards.

Teranesia is an account of the youngsters' character development. The two of them go to odd, bohemian relatives, one of whom is a strident feminist and the other is her browbeaten partner, forced to agree with her views. On the subject of his beloved's investigations into (supposedly) biased computer systems, Keith has the following to propound - and we mean propound: "This blatantly sexist coding underpins all modern digital technology! And then we ask ourselves why women find it an unwelcoming space... So Amita proposed a new paradigm, for both hardware and software. The old, male-dominated hardware is replaced by the transgressive computer, or transputer. The old, male-dominated software is translated into a brand-new language, called Ada - after Ada Lovelace, the unsung mother of computing." This fresh theory being? That every "one becomes a zero, every zero becomes a one: a universal digital gender reassignment! And the beauty of it is, on the surface everything looks like business as usual." Prabir doubts the wisdom of allowing himself and his sister (of whom he is murderously protective) to wash up on these particular shores: about having "delivered Madhusree into her hands". But they begin to build a new life, and importantly, every word about Prabir rings with hollowness and with truth, if not with both. We can certainly hear his sigh on being lectured in the following manner: "Proof is dead," he is told. "Logic is obsolete. The next generation must be taught from childhood to ridicule Russell's Principia, to tweak the beard of Carl Friedrich Gauss - to pull down Pythagoras's trousers!"

Events at school are reasonable, and time gulps its way forward. Prabir is employed to work on various technological projects, while taking care of the young girl who has become a young woman. Prabir (in a very nice and quite unexpected touch) fears romantic encounters, deeming them unsuitable at a time when Sis still needs his constant supervision - at least in his own mind. All the time that he is trying to convince himself of his heterosexuality, Madhusree is forming her own opinions about the world, and as it goes, is actively encouraging about her brother forming a relationship with whomever the hell he pleases. Certainly she has her own big confession to drop later on: she wishes to return, in a scientific capacity, to the geographical area where their parents were killed. Having dedicated much of his life to protecting her from the evils of such a place (where the ground, he is quick to remind her, will be booby-trapped), Prabir is dead-set against this development, but in fiction an idea is a plot-strand, and she goes. Madhusree takes on casual labour to finance the trip, once Prabir has refused to help her, financially; but then the brother has an attack of conscience and chases her there, with the help (specifically) of a boat-owner named Martha Grant.

"The first discovery to attract the attention of the world's biologists had been a fruit pigeon with strange coloration, a hitherto unseen mottled camouflage of green and brown..." This is the reason why worldwide bigwigs are congregating throughout the area. "There was a dead tree frog with young that had apparently been maturing in a water-filled pouch. And there was a bat with the bones in its wings rearranged in an efficient, albeit unspectacular fashion - thanks to a fully functioning gene for a protein controlling embryological development that did not exist in any other species on the planet." On reflection, however, Prabir suspects that a spreading virus might be responsible.

Let's talk shop.

Tropes and nets, nets and tropes: science fiction has its fair share of both. A trope - which has been, at various times, a figure of speech, a short distinctive cadence at the close of a melody in Gregorian Music, a phrase, sentence or verse introduced as an embellishment into part of the text of the mass in the Western Church, and even the reciprocal of a node on a curve or surface - is more often, in genre criticism, used to mean a familiar strand, a wild card. And that's fine. The farmboy who becomes a leader: trope. The mismatched adventurers on the search for their particular grail: trope.

As close to trope as it may be, "net" is significantly harder to define, and not simply because I've just made it up. But let's have a crack at it.

Everybody who reads fiction - particularly fiction of the fantastic - is versed in the notion of net, like it or not. It is an abbreviation for "safety net", though there will be other terms to define it, no doubt, but "net" sums it up simply and kindly. A net is an idea that is used to detract from the fact that the human elements of a particular text are either not very convincing, or not very present. "This brother and sister relationship isn't working, so I'll throw in a legion of zombie battlecruiser captains." That sort of nonsense. Furthermore, it is entirely possible (and maybe even in keeping) for there to be nets about the Net - about the World Wide Web. Or perhaps things might move the other way around: the so-called science fiction element (read: extrapolative, imaginative underpinning) has holes the size of a mouse's, so let's juice it up with some cardboard incest and some birthday party murders. That kind of thing.

Some writers work with safety nets, and some writers don't: but let's be clear that this is not about good and bad. Nor about "great" writers and "lesser" writers. Let's not be snobbish: a safety net is a plot-tool, it's not a plot, and readers are more sensitive than ever (because so much has been done before) to subtle ministrations, or to being manipulated. If a net is the only thing that a plot has going for it, then gods help the writer, that's all I can say.

When it comes to a writer like Greg Egan, however, you begin to suspect that the usual rules do not quite apply; but by stating clearly what the author leaves out, we might get closer to what he's all about. Both fiercely original and a clever craftsman, he does not often use tropes, and he's a writer who has always worked without a net: he has learned his lessons, and has learned how to please. He is one of the genre's most consistently brilliant ideas-men, and this is mentioned in a review by someone who does not regard this expression as a sniffy, veiled insult. "Ideas man" does not mean to imply: good at ideas and weak at everything else. "Ideas man", in my book, means: good at ideas, and at generating the proper manner for their exploration. The ideas give characters voices, and the voices give characters ideas. In other words, Egan writes rounded, well-smoothed stories. This book has fire and fever in its eyes, and I loved the burn.

Review by David Mathew.

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© David Mathew 27 November 1999