REVIEWS by SULLYDOG
by Greg Egan
The first three books in the reviews for NeverWorlds #9 take a slightly different tack on one of my favorite science-fictional themes: the evolution of the human race. Ever since I first read Dune as a pimple-faced boy, Ive thought that science fiction was at its best when it depicted humanity undergoing a Big Change. But thats not enough for great fictionafter all, a history book does that. You have to show the Big Change through its impact on individuals. In these three novels, the Great Gregs have done that, to varying degrees. The first two, Teranesia and Darwins Radio, tell a story of punctuated evolution in a setting of crisisand arguably, so does Eater.
In Teranesia, Egan weaves together exotic settings, unusual characters, and fairly solid science to tell a story that really boils down to a troubled young man coming to terms with himself. Prabir Suresh is growing up with his kid sister on a sort of high-tech Gilligans Island, an unmapped speck in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago which theyve dubbed Teranesia. His parents, both scientists, are investigating anomalous mutations in local butterfly species. Prabirs idyllic existence is shattered by the outbreak of an Indonesian civil war, the violent death of his parents, and a harrowing escape from the island. Egan does a beautiful job of depicting how a precocious pre-adolescent boy would act, think and feel under these circumstances, and in doing so he binds the reader emotionally to Prabirs fate.
Twenty years later, Prabir and his sister Madhusree are pursuing their own careers in biology. Prabir is mired, intellectually and emotionally. Hes struggling to reconcile himself to his own homosexuality, which he tends to look at as a sort of evolutionary indulgence. In a particularly compelling passage, Egan uses dialog between Prabir and his lover to spin out a beautiful and thoughtful treatise on human sexuality. Prabir is also trying to adapt to Madhusrees growing independence. Since the escape from the island hes always been protective of her, and now shes running off to Indonesia as part of an expedition to investigate the sudden and inexplicable appearance of new species.
This situation confronts Prabir with a crisis of character. He fails, choosing to chase after his kid sister and bring her back to safety. But this choice will ultimately provide Prabir with the opportunity to confront deeper issues, and not incidentally play a part in solving the mystery of Teranesia. As he chases his sister across the Archipelago, accompanied by a hard-as-nails mercenary scientist (I kept thinking this scenario felt like a cross-dressing of The African Queen, but it worked), we watch the puzzle unravel. Species across the region are responding to environmental stressors by a sort of reverse-evolutionary process, in which fossil genes are reactivated, transcribed, and translated into new proteins that change the phenotype of the organism. Rather than try to come up with new genes to respond to precipitous challenges in the environment, species are merely dusting off genetic strategies that worked for their ancestors during similar crises in eons past. The problem for Prabirand everybody elseis that this novel evolutionary process appears to be catalyzed by a semi-intelligent mutagen, the San Paulo proteinand that mutagen appears to be contagious. Its inevitable, of course, that it breaks into the human population, and that it does so through Prabir.
That creates a final technical problem for Egan to solve, in terms of both science and plotting. This novel demonstrates Egans usual attention to detail, but there are some minor problems with the biology. The San Paulo protein catalyzes a not-altogether-plausible transformation of Prabirs body, and prompts his sister to formulate a not-altogether-plausible therapy. But the reason this depiction of Prabirs unlikely physical transformation works at a fictional level has nothing to do with the science. It works because its a beautiful and resonant reflection of Prabirs spiritual transformation, and because Egan has connected us so solidly with his characters. Notwithstanding my minor technical quibbles, Teranesia is first-rate hard science fiction, not because its a terrific story about the evolution of life on earth, or the evolution of humanity. Its first-rate science fiction because its a terrific story about the evolution of a man named Prabir Saresh.