Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

1999: Teranesia (Egan, Greg)

Archipelagic fauna uniformly mutate (4/5)

As far as I know, Greg Egan isn't one of those authors who slough off a novel ever year, shrugs, and says Take it or leave it. On the flip-side, Greg Egan is a rare author who writes for himself (throw Gene Wilde in to the bag, too). I imagine that he pours over science literature, something ignites his curiosity and creativity, then he sits down and creates a science fiction world for himself... and it just happens to sell moderately well. Like Gene Wolfe's cryptic/mythological/religious and convoluted-yet interesting stories, I doubt anyone understands everything the Egan has penned into his hard science novels. But the reader isn't in place "to understand" then novel, rather the reader puts themselves at the mercy of Egan's writing in order to experience the sheer depth of possibility.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Prabir Suresh and his younger sister, Madhusree, live in a remote paradise called Teranesia, where their biologist parents are studying an unexplained genetic mutation among the island's butterflies. Then civil war erupts across Indonesia, shattering their idyllic world and their lives. Twenty years later, Prabir is still plagued by feelings of guilt and an overwhelming responsibility for his sister, now a biologist herself. Against his advice, Madhusree is returning to Teranesia to solve the mystery of the butterflies and study strange new plant and animal species that have been emerging throughout the region--species separated from their known cousins by dramatic mutations that seem far too efficient to have arisen by chance. Afraid for her safety, Prabir joins forces with independent scientist Martha Grant to find her. But what he will discover on Teranesia is far more dangerous and wondrous than he can ever fear--or imagine..."

As a precocious pre-teen on Indonesian island, Prabir is fascinated by the science surrounding him, but it's also the bane of his life as his parents dedicate much of their time to unraveling the mystery of the mutated butterflies which inhabit their island, Teranesia. Virtually raising his sister by himself, Prabir is protective of her even while on the island. When a tragedy forces them to evacuate the island, the two travel by sea under the gloomy awning of a civil war. Eventually, they emigrate to Toronto to live with their aunt.

Eighteen years later and now an undergraduate, Prabir's sister has the opportunity to travel to the same archipelago to study the oddly evolving wildlife with some post-doctoral students. Prabir continues to shelter Madhusree from the ugly truth of the island tragedy and urges her not to leave. After she departs on her biological study, Prabir's conscious gets the best of him and books a ticket to travel to the same archipelago, unbeknown to Madhusree. His tracking of the scientists is hastened by an solo scientist who is also in the area to study the uniform mutations of the local species.

As they island hop, the duo discover the exact same mutations in the exact same species of bird. The ubiquitous mutations also affect the ant colonies, the reptiles, and even the flora where orchids carnivorously devour their captured prey and the shrubs grow barbs when no herbivorous species are near. With all the data gathered being shared for free online, some fantastic discoveries are being made... some even more fantastic hypotheses are trickled out, which, if true, will shatter the foundations of genetics an evolution.

Unlike the Egan I know, the author dons the hat of the humorist in Teranesia, something I don't remember seeing in his other books I've read: Quarantine, Diaspora or Permutation City. While the relationship between Prabir and his sister is trying at times, the other two relationships Prabir experiences (with his parter Felix in Toronto and his fellow scientist Marge) offer him a release to his pent up frustration with having to emotionally protect younger sister for years. Or perhaps Egan was just having some fun:
"Prabir bought a syrupy fruit concoction whose contents defied translation; the bartender assured him it was nonalcoholic, but that seemed to be based on the dubious assumption that the whole thing wouldn't spontaneously ferment before his eyes, like an overripe mango. Prabir took one sip and changed his mind; the sugar concentration was high enough to kill any microorganisms by sheer osmosis." (148)
In contrast to this is Egan's typical unfathomable techno-spiels, where his review of science literature leaves his access to specialized vocabulary only vaguely familiar to the reader. He doesn't continue his techno-tirades through pages and pages, but only a paragraph or two to tweak the interest of the reader's scientific nipple:
"One of the many approximations made by the modelers involved the quantum state of the protein, which was described mathematically in terms of eigenstates for the bonds between atoms: quantum states that possessed definite values for such things as the position of the bond and its vibrational energy." (286-287)
It's not as off-putting as it may sound, because Egan always has an ulterior motive behind his inclusion on the moderate level of nonsense. Eventually he'll focus on the crux of the major scientific wonder, extreme and hypothetical as it may be, and you'll be reeling aghast at the possibilities Egan can draw up. Teranesia maintains this Egan-specific quality but it happens at such a late point in the book that much of the reality-application of the discovery is left untested. But like Quarantine, Diaspora, and Permutation City, the book rates highly (all 4- or 5-star rating).

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