In the interests of full disclosure, I’m not a hard sci-fi fan. I assumed there would be prejudices for me to overcome in reviewing this book, but lured by the imaginative plot, I decided to take the plunge. What I encountered was a book that couldn’t decide if it was hard or soft sci-fi; in more useful terms, Egan appeared interested in building an imaginative world to describe a post-singularity future, but also in giving us a schoolhouse-style lesson in cosmic geometry. Fearing to eclipse either of these goals, he wound up accomplishing neither. Incandescence is a sci-fi novel written in the style of a Socratic dialogue, with all the accompanying frustration at hairsplitting and nonexistent emotional involvement.
The novel has two plots, related more tangentially than substantively. The first takes place in the galaxy-wide super-state called the Amalgam, a term which applies less to any government or social system but rather a form of infrastructure. Immortality is commonplace as individuals can download their consciousnesses into software and upload them into new bodies of any kind, allowing for endless physical shape-shifting. Or, if one prefers, he could live in one of the countless nodes nestled in corners of the Milky Way, Matrix-type virtual-reality centers where people can socialize and tailor their perceptions however they wish. So refined is this system that children can be born entirely within software, capable of uploading into physical bodies like anyone else but possessing no original form. The entire galaxy has been explored and tamed: every culture has been discovered and all major sources of conflict appear to be solved. It seems the main occupation of Amalgam citizens is to schmooze. Forever. The one exception to this endlessness is the center of the galaxy, realm of the Aloof, aliens who want nothing to do with anyone else and have peacefully shunned any form of contact.
Life in the Amalgam is filled with ennui on the cosmic scale for Rakesh. Having spent centuries waiting for a piece of the unknown, a chance for exploration, to fall in his lap, it unexpectedly does. It appears there is an unknown alien race in Aloof territory, and the Aloof have enlisted someone to help them find it—their first contact in over a million years. But this person doesn’t care much about the job, so Rakesh, as much out of boredom as anything else, takes it.
This alien race is the second plot, a species of giant insects on a piece of rock called the Splinter, which due to its irregular shape has strange properties of gravity. Its bronze-age inhabitants are interested only in work and the companionship that comes from it. Enter your Socrates proxy who teaches the entire race how to apply and appreciate the science of physics, which is the only way for them to save their home from the cosmological chaos of the center of the galaxy.
Thus the storylines for the bulk of the book are a detective story to find this lost world and the lost world’s attempt to find itself by overcoming its blissful ignorance and accepting the brave new world education can provide. But most of the plot points are entirely procedural. Rakesh and his friend solve their mystery through actions slightly more exciting than paperwork (they read and discuss scans instead); the lost race gets to learn all about the Splinter’s gravity physics in far-too-painstaking detail. Since the reader has been given no reason to care either about this other race (except that it’s novel), or about the real physics of a fake planet, the novel fails to accomplish much of anything.
All the potentially fascinating aspects of the Amalgam which make it such a depressingly nihilistic place to live are given only the most cursory of explanations. Egan considers nitty-gritty collective monologue (I refuse to call it dialogue) about finding a fictional planet or overcoming general ignorance far more worth our time. Perhaps this is my soft sci-fi bias showing through, but I was hoping for more insight than “blissful ignorance and dogged intellectual passion both have their advantages and disadvantages.” The two storylines merge in the end, but in a way that doesn’t forward either plot or impact the novel’s themes. Any promise Incandescence has from its creative world is completely undermined by Egan’s firm desire to pay it little attention in favor of tedium; this is coupled with a storyline that is tedious at best and always unfulfilling, making the novel a dud in all senses of the word.