Orthogonal, by Greg Egan: a review

Perpendicular

Greg Egan’s books are remarkable for two rather unrelated reasons: on the one hand, the attention to detailed world-building which makes of his work “diamond-hard” science fiction, often including a great deal of mathematical rigour; on the other, a deft and penetrating insight into social and political conflict. Orthogonal, the yet incomplete–rather incompletely published–trilogy under review, is not an exception. Perhaps these two characteristics, which may at first seem orthogonal themselves, bear a non-zero inner product after all: the same mind which delights in the relentless consequential reasoning giving rise to novels such as Distress, can’t do anything else but apply a materialist analysis to the societies of those imagined worlds, just as it does to their physics.

As this review attempts to introduce not only Orthogonal, but Greg Egan himself, to those readers who haven’t encountered his work before, I’ll quote a short excerpt from Teranesia, which is not only funny and perceptive, but also one of the sharpest attacks on the post-modernist pseudo-left I’ve ever read, in its own lair: the narrative:

Madhusree had expounded with her usual nine-year-old’s volubility. ‘In the nineteen sixties and seventies, there were people in all the democratic countries who didn’t have any real power, and they started going to the people who did have all the power and saying, “All these principles of equality you’ve been talking about since the French Revolution are very nice, but you don’t seem to be taking them very seriously. You’re all hypocrites, actually. So we’re going to make you take those principles seriously.” And they held demonstrations and bus rides, and occupied buildings, and it was very embarrassing for the people in power, because the other people had such a good argument, and anyone who listened seriously had to agree with them.

‘Feminism was working, and the civil rights movement was working, and all the other social justice movements were getting more and more support. So, in the nineteen eighties, the CIA—’ she turned to Keith and explained cheerfully, ‘this is where X-Files Theory comes into it–hired some really clever linguists to invent a secret weapon: an incredibly complicated way of talking about politics that didn’t actually make any sense, but which spread through all the universities in the world, because it sounded so impressive. And at first, the people who talked like this just hitched their wagon to the social justice movements, and everyone else let them come along for the ride, because they seemed harmless. But then they climbed on board the peace train and threw out the driver.

‘So instead of going to the people in power and saying, “How about upholding the universal principles you claim to believe in?” the people in the social justice movements ended up saying things like “My truth narrative is in competition with your truth narrative!” And the people in power replied, “Woe is me! You’ve thrown me in the briar patch!” And everyone else said, “Who are these idiots? Why should we trust them, when they can’t even speak properly?” And the CIA were happy. And the people in power were happy. And the secret weapon lived on in the universities for years and years, because everyone who’d played a part in the conspiracy was too embarrassed to admit what they’d done.’

The funny thing is, every time I read that excerpt I have to wonder whether it’s actually true. It definitely has a ring of plausibility, given the strange ways in which the cold war’s players funneled funding to cultural activities. But whether or not it’s true is, in this case, secondary: what makes it such a devastating narrative is that it reads more plausible than the ostensible truth: that some people managed to squander the second best objective conditions of the century in railing against universal values and grand narratives while the potential to change the world slipped, for the sake of seeming clever. At least in Egan’s narrative someone isn’t being an idiot.

So what is Orthogonal about? Orthogonal is set in a universe where physical laws are different from ours in some important ways: light generates energy when it is created, so plants are luminescent in order to generate food, instead of photosynthesizing. The universe also happens to have a radically different topology, but I will refrain from spoilers. Suffice it to say that the world where Orthogonal happens is rather carefully thought out.

There are two primary strands to the first book, called The Clockwork Rocket. On the one hand, there’s the science: as readers, we’re shown how scientists carry forward their work in order to find out how the world is put together, and try to avert a catastrophe. This is the fundamental existential threat which moves the series. Meteors are hitting the world, in increasing numbers, and life itself is at risk.

On the other hand, there’s an undercurrent of social conflict which is largely–though not entirely–grounded on biology and reproduction. Like in our world, the people described in Orthogonal are divided in two genders. Unlike in our world, reproduction isn’t strictly sexual: most often but not necessarily triggered by a male, the female of the species enters a dorment state, and divides into two or four children. After this process, the female is no more, her flesh inherited by her offspring. Dying without reproducing is called “going the way of men”, and is socially disapproved. In the normal course of events, siblings reproduce with each other, although some are born unpaired, which can also be a source of rejection. Some reasons why this doesn’t lead to genetic degeneration are hinted at on book two.

As you can imagine, this setup leads to interesting consequences in terms of sexual conflict. On book one, it centres on contraception and birth control. There is a plant which can prevent females from undergoing reproduction, or at least strongly reduce the probabilities. The use of this plant is illegal, which gives rise to tension with the free-minded females who consider their lives worthwhile in their own right, and not a mere prerequisite for the preservation of the species.

The second book, The Eternal Flame, takes place on a spacecraft which has been launched from the world in order to exploit the fact that, like in our world, speed has an impact on time. The rocket contains a scientific mission which purpose is to research the meteors and ways to stop them, and come back to the world before it is too late. Again there are two primary strands to this book, one scientific, and another political.

On the science side, we get to find out more about the way matter is shaped, and how the weird topology of the universe affects its properties. Though the object of the mission is to find a practical solution to save the world from the objects bombarding it, the mission engages in all manner of theoretical research, as it is impossible to know a priori how this may be achieved. Hence, the study of matter.

Politically, overpopulation begins to threaten the scarce food supplies of the craft. Typically females divide into four children, which is far more than required for a stable population base. In order to try to avoid problems, there’s a food rationing system, and females keep themselves on the edge of starvation, to trick their bodies into dividing in two instead, which is a natural response to low resources. This solution presents its own problems, and is not entirely reliable, so the biologists in the mission attempt to find a way to induce it artificially. What they find is a completely different possibility: a radically unnatural way to reproduce which would destabilise society. Or so would some have it.

Some of the political attitudes encountered in this series are very reminiscent of actual problems we have in our world. For example, the reproductive role of females leads some people to believe their fundamental duty is to remain under male protection, and yield their flesh to the coming generation: He stepped away from her, visibly revolted. ‘I’m not fathering children with someone else,’ he said. ‘The flesh of our mother is the flesh of my children; however long you might borrow it, it’s not yours. Least of all yours to endanger.’ It’s not hard to imagine that these attitudes clash with the females’ desire for autonomy. Some would prefer to go the way of men; some would simply want to decide when to reproduce; and some would wish to make use of the new possibilities biological research would offer them.

Needless to say, I haven’t yet read book three, The Arrow of Time, scheduled for 2013, but I very much look forward to it. I have no doubt Greg Egan will again surprise us, both with his scientific acumen, and his ability to present us with political problems which, though different from our own, are all but orthogonal.

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About modulus

Modulus is an unaffiliated Marxist from South Western EU (Spanish state). He studied computer science and law, and is at present preparing for civil service exams for the Spanish administration. An avid IRC user, he enjoys arguments and will occasionally play devil's advocate. He regards himself as orthodox and is concerned about unscientific attitudes on the left on such things as nuclear energy, biotechnology, and so on. His support for the European Union as a platform to unify the class struggle across the continent has earned him plenty of strong opposition, and doubtless will continue to do so; until, that is, his view is vindicated by history.
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