We're going to the island of butterflies.
Teranesia is an excellent science-fiction novel by established Australian writer Greg Egan. Much like his other novels, he takes an enticing scientific conjecture and wraps it about with detail, narrative, and philosophical discussion. The story is built around his what-if hypothesis, and not vice-versa, but this is hardly a detriment. Egan has never claimed to anything more.
The novel begins with the story of a young, but extremely intelligent boy named Prabir Sudresh. He spends his days roaming the remote Indonesian island of Teranesia, where his biologist parents have setup an expedition to study a new, strange butterfly showing what seem to be impossible new evolutionary developments. This idyllic life is shattered when civil war erupts, forcing Prabir to assume responsibility for his younger sister Madhusree. Twenty years later, Madhusree has joined a scientific investigation for her university into the spread of strange, disturbing new plants and animals through the Indonesian archipeligo. Prabir, wracked by guilt and responsibility for his sister, tries to prevent her from going indirectly, and fails. Unable to reconcile his feelings, he follows after her research group, joining with an independent biologist named Martha Grant. His attention is soon distracted, however, by the almost surreal mutations he witnesses among species in the region; mutations that seem to grow more pronounced the closer the come to Teranesia.
Much like his previous novels, throughout Teranesia Greg Egan introduces several important themes. He shows an intelligent penchant for analysis as he tackles such subjects as the significance of human achievement when compared with the blind efficiency of evolution, the nature of relationships, drawing meaning from the relentless biological forces driving us to protect those we love, and the ways in which grief and guilt can warp our perceptions. His technical and descriptive skill is excellent, giving both his characters and their exotic island surroundings a vital breath of life. Not only this, but the near-future technologies he employs are plausible and clearly explained while still fitting in fluidly with the narrative structure. Egan's techno gizmos don't parade themselves about, hogging the spotlight from all other elements, but rather become just another element of his world.
Something equally important to me, although perhaps not vital to the novel, is Egan's persistant refusal to surrender to cultural preconceptions. He keeps his novels doggedly international, with an optimistic faith in the ability of humankind to transcend borders of the land and the mind. Prabir is an Indian from Calcutta living in Toronto, he dates a Hispanic man who has been blind from birth, his partner in crime Marth Grant is Welsh. From every corner of the world come the main characters of the story, giving it a refreshingly baggage-free feeling. Beyond this, Egan has an excellent sense of the fluidity of gender. His many character is a gay man in a loving relationship, but when confronted with increasingly traumatic revelations from the past as he nears Teranesia, Prabir grows confused and questioning of his relationship with Grant. Egan has tackled non-standard sexual and gender issues before, and once again he more than easily rises to the challenge. He treats the subject with the emotional sensitivity necessary, while never straying from his belief that science is the ultimate tool for revealing the truth of our world. Prabir's sexuality is realistic and recognizable; he senses urges we have all felt yet responds to them with the rational control that we all know is necessary.
In all Egan novels there is always an anti-scientific force for the characters to overcome, and Teranesia is no different. His boogiemen here take the form of hilariously characterized post-modernists. His academics engage in debates of the merits of a 'the goddess, feminine qualities of nature gone awry' and decry the inherently sexism of computers with their use of 0s and 1s symbolizing the rape and subjugation of women's vaginas by men's phallises. This would be unbelievable if not for its very close correlation with the sort of drivel one can find spilling out of academic departments throughout the world even today. He also takes a crack-shot at religion, although he is somewhat less successful here, too obviously setting all religious figures as the bad guys for which atheism is the only logical alternative.
Despite the wonderful, accurate science interspersed throughout Teranesia, some temptations to break up the flow of the novel are too difficult to resist. So caught up in his ever-branching explanations and conjectures, Egan sometimes pulls the reader too far away from the world he's trying to depict. Most people in real life exchange a few words of affection when climbing into bed with their lover, Egan's characters debate the evolutionary merits of homosexuality and appropriate metaphors for its description. The dialogue can often stray from conversational to pedagogic, and though this never lasts long, it can still sometimes be disjointing. Also like every novel he's ever written, Teranesia drips with a cheerful sort of nihilism which Egan takes for given without greatly justifying his assumptions. This was not a bother for me, though I do not disagree with him, but it may be off-putting to others.
Teranesia is an entrancing novel for more than just its fantastic yet grounded scientific speculation. The characters are vivid, their relationships complicated and fascinating, the world they inhabit filled with energy and realism. Egan has proved once again that he is more than capable of broadening his perspective beyond just science-fiction to cover philosophy, current affairs, and deeper literary themes to which everyone can relate. I would recommend this book to anyone with the patience to spend time understanding his science and a desire for something more in science-fiction than just whizbang technology.