The Book of All Skies
by Greg Egan
Published September 2021
Browsing the shelves of fiction at the renovated Marrickville library, a reader’s attention is drawn to the icon taped onto the spine. A heart for romance, a dragon for fantasy, a ringed planet for science fiction, a detective for noir, a kangaroo for Australian fiction, an Aboriginal flag for Indigenous fiction, and on, and on. It is necessarily reductive; how can you distil a whole field to a single symbol? Classification systems like these cannot account for boundary-crossing fiction, nor for subgenre, nor for texts that subvert genre expectations. And if a novel is both Australian and science fiction, which category is considered the most appropriate, the more important, to be put on the spine, and who is it that makes these decisions? What does it mean for a novel to be marked and marketed in this way, and how is it effected in so-called Australia? And when a novel is designated a genre, how does this affect a reader’s encounter with it?
These icons on the spines suggest that genre fiction can be condensed to a simple graphic, and as any given novel carries only one sticker, the ringed planet or the kangaroo, that it can be only either science fiction or Australian. Yet here in the library the spines of ‘literary fiction’ stand bare. I want to consider ‘literary fiction’ as a genre alongside science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, rather than the idealised form from which all else is considered an offshoot, and in doing this, I follow Matthew Cheney’s thinking:
the term literary fiction is not neutral, but rather comes to us bearing connotations of prestige, complexity, class, and value. While, in an ideal world, the terms literary fiction and science fiction would be descriptors rather than value statements, we do not live in an ideal world.
So what would the icon of this genre be, the face of some guy? The faces of a few people talking in a closed room?
These are some of the questions that circle before, during, and after reading The Book of All Skies, the fourteenth novel by the veteran Australian ‘hard’ science fiction writer Greg Egan, self-published in September 2021. The Book of All Skies is set on a world that is a series of worlds, brought together by two ‘hoops’ that act as portals. Following the ring road and making passes through and around these hoops carries an inhabitant to neighbouring lands, each lying underneath a different sky, lands which were once separate worlds in separate galaxies. The structure of this world is the result of technological failure: the hoops, intended by their makers to offer convenient interstellar travel, collapsed into the earth, causing mass destruction, and forever altering the structure of the planet, forming a multiply connected space.
The novel opens with Del, a linguist working in a museum, waiting on the arrival of a full copy of the titular ‘The Book of All Skies’,recently uncovered in an archaeological dig. ‘The Book of all Skies’ is rumoured to explain the location of the Bounteous Lands, ‘where one star lies so close that it gives life to the entire world’, believed to lie beyond the impassable mountains which block the path through the hoops in one direction. Following this same path through the hoops in the other direction, an inhabitant is face with a void. But ‘The Book of All Skies’ is stolen before it can be read, driving a rush of expeditions each competing to find a way through the mountains before any other. Del joins an expedition that, first by a hypothesis of electrostatics, and then through calculations of gravity, determines that land lies beyond the void. After securing investors, a bridge is built to cross it, spiralling to accommodate for the changing gravity, but it is sabotaged upon completion. Only Del and Imogen, an ocean diver, cross over to reach the so-called Bounteous Lands, as the bridge collapses behind them. What they find is society under an alternate economic system. In its richness of resources, this series of worlds under its own series of skies operates through a gift economy.
The Book of All Skies, Egan’s book, cannot be found on library shelves or in bookstores. It can be purchased as an e-book for a few dollars, or printed on demand through Amazon. If you get lucky in a library, you might spot a copy of Egan’s earlier novels, released through traditional publishers in the US, Dichronauts (Night Shade Books; 2017) or Perihelion Summer (Tor; 2019), which both carry a ringed planet and not a kangaroo. If he is to be found in bookstores, where we may occasionally see a copy of The Best of Greg Egan (Orion; 2021), a new member of the SF Masterworks series, his work is shelved under science fiction, or science fiction/fantasy, or science fiction/fantasy/horror – never Australian fiction, and certainly not literary fiction.
Compare this to the work of Claire G. Coleman, another prominent local science fiction writer, whose novels are generally placed in stores amongst Australian fiction and never, at least not during my browsing, shelved with science fiction. Coleman is found downstairs with Australian fiction in Abbey’s Bookshop; Egan is found upstairs at Galaxy Bookshop. In the Marrickville library, however, Coleman’s novel The Old Lie (Hachette Australia; 2019) has the ringed planet on its spine, while Terra Nullius (Hachette Australia; 2017) does not, presumably because the former is partially set in ‘outer space’. Coleman calls herself a science fiction writer, but it is rare find her novels shelved alongside other novels of the same genre. Perhaps it is that Coleman’s work has been published by Hachette Australia whereas Egan has not had a novel published locally since his first, An Unusual Angle (1983), which was released by now-defunct slipstream publisher, Norstrilla (who first published Gerald Murnane’s The Plains).
Greg Egan is an Australian writer – though he is rarely given consideration as such. In Karen Burnham’s 2014 monograph, part of University of Illinois Press’s ‘Modern Masters of Science Fiction’ series, she explicitly forgoes speaking of Egan as an Australian author, on the basis that he established his career through UK and USA publishers. She adds that yes, some of his fiction is set in Australia, and yes, he has won Australian awards, but generally dismisses his ‘Australianness’. That his success was formed by US and UK markets is exactly indicative of his ‘Australianness’, given the lack of dedicated genre publishing here. Egan’s only other locally published book, Our Lady of Chernobyl (MirrorDanse; 1995), a short story collection illustrated by Shaun Tan, is now out of print. MirrorDanse, Australia’s ‘longest running independent publisher of science fiction and horror,’ has not published any work since 2008, and their website has not been updated since 2015. We are seeing a growth of Australian speculative fiction (a term that now appears to be favoured over science fiction or fantasy), but these novels are released by traditional literary publishers, as if to be subsumed into the broader category of Australian literary fiction. Why, I wonder, does Briohny Doyle’s The Island Must Sink (Brow Books; 2016) not carry the ringed planet symbol at my local library?
Depending on who you ask, a genre may be a set of tropes, a shared history, a community, and a marketing tool, but the naming of a genre causes an effect on the reader: sentences are understood in distinct ways. Science fiction author and theorist Samuel R. Delany proposes a useful concept of reading protocols. To understand them, ‘literary fiction’ must be accepted as a genre, with its own conventions and contours and values. To read sentences in a literary fiction text and in a science fiction text requires different processes, different attentions, and draws on different histories, and, in Delany’s words, ‘different underlying questions are brought into play the moment we identify a text (either from something within it or from what we have heard about it) as belonging to one mode or the other’.
This can be seen explicitly in The Book of All Skies, when, in the second paragraph, Egan offhandedly refers to Del spotting ‘the heat blotch of four people approaching together’. If this same sentence appeared in literary fiction, ‘seeing heat’ would be understood as metaphor, as a poetic device; the characters in question may be angry, or embarrassed, or maybe horny. Seeing a heat blotch would likely refer to the mental state of a character, something turned inward. In science fiction, a reader takes such words and sentences at face value. This is a world in which ‘seeing heat’, in the first instance, is expected to be read literally. The idea is turned outward from the character towards the world, and rather than an emotion, it is an action. Heat is visible to the Del.
The Book of All Skies does not offer an immediate explanation of seeing heat, so as we continue to read, we ask ourselves how it is possible for a human to do this; is it an innate ability, or is it through technology? Are these characters human at all? When we read science fiction, we must take leaps, we build a hypothesis that may be confirmed or denied as the narrative progresses. Delany conceptualises reading science fiction as a fluid and speculative game:
with each sentence we have to ask what in the world of the tale would have to be different from our world for such a sentence to be uttered – and thus, as the sentences build up, we build up a world in specific dialogue, in a specific tension, with our present concept of the real.
In The Book of All Skies, it is gradually revealed that the inhabitants live without a sun, relying on geothermal warmth and starlight, and so have adapted and evolved the capacity to see the infrared spectrum. Further into the novel, we learn the circumstances which led to this lack of sun, that it was through human intervention, a result of the collapse of the hoops. Now the ‘earth’, our earth, is just one of the lands under one of the skies, the only one with a sun, under which the inhabitants can no longer survive.
As science fiction demands to be read differently to other genres of fiction, why then would we evaluate it according to the same matrix as literary fiction? Where literary fiction criticism is plagued by the maxim ‘show, don’t tell’, and extended sections of exposition often considered to be amateur, science fiction cannot exist without exposition. The so-called ‘info dumps’ are inevitable and necessary, the differences between the ‘real’ world and the fictional world need to be described and explained. These info dumps may appear in narration, but more often than not are given through dialogue, between expert and non-expert characters, the genealogy of which technique can be traced to Socratic dialogue.
Where characters in literary fiction may be accused of being flat and unbelievable, characters in science fiction might act more like stock characters, as vehicles through which the writer explores the consequences of their fictional world’s fictional science. As Egan himself has said in an interview with Karen Burnham, ‘the characters are there to collide with something outside themselves in order to reveal its shape’. Would it be fair to accuse an Arlecchino of being predictable? What does it mean to ask for ‘depth’ of character when a novel is printed on flat paper, or presented on a flat screen? There is no depth to be found here, only an extensive web of relations built up sentence by sentence.
Delany argues that while literary fiction prioritises explorations of the subject, science fiction focuses its attention on the object:
Science fiction is far more concerned with the organization (and reorganization) of the object, that is, the world, or the institutions through which we perceive it. It is concerned with the subject, certainly, but concerned with those aspects of it that are closer to the object: How is the subject excited, impinged on, contoured and constituted by the object?
Neither genre is limited to just one perspective, but the contours of attention of both the writer and the reader can be traced under this rubric.
Egan is an author of ‘hard’ science fiction, a subgenre characterised by its focus on mathematical and scientific accuracy. ‘Hard’ here is opposed to ‘soft’, where hard refers to the natural sciences, and soft to the social sciences. While the differences between these categories are blurry, they work to set up the expectations of the reader, who approach the hard science fiction text expecting a high degree of technical rigour and consistent logic. While some readers may attempt to ‘disprove’ the theories in the narrative, a hard science fiction novel is still a fiction.
The hard of hard science fiction may also sometimes mean hard to read or hard to understand. How closely one reads a text is dependent on the kind of knowledge one already holds. I am familiar with topology, and so can easily understand the concept of multiply connected space, but my grasp of the physics of gravity and electrostatics is limited. When reading the sections explaining the science that locates land beyond the void, I don’t fully understand how positive and negative forces are measured perpendicular to the aperture of a hoop, or even the metaphor Egan’s character Montano offers, of a charged bead placed near a metal disk, but I can choose to let it carry me along. I can choose to do research alongside my reading, if I need to grasp the world more firmly. Egan offers supplementary material on his website, explaining the mathematics of the hoops and the lands they have created, as he does for many of his other novels with strange physics. While my understanding of the science is in flux, I can still form an understanding of its implications.
What constitutes ‘hard’ science fiction is contested, but nostalgia is arguably a part of it. A purist may seek to call back to the ‘good old days’ of the Golden Age of science fiction, a period in the United States between 1938 and 1946, a period of ‘scientific rigour’, a period that didn’t exist as concretely as it is now imagined. To the general public, science fiction and hard science fiction are often conflated, and the impression of the whole genre is masculine, apolitical, amoral, fetishistic, libertarian, conservative (not to say that this perception is entirely unwarranted). This conflation fosters the cliché of an enclave of science fiction writers, puzzling out their microcosmic ideas without much reference to the world. The best of those writers do, however, connect these puzzles to the broader world, they work to do, in Egan’s words again, ‘something to nudge the center of gravity of contemporary SF some microscopic distance toward a genuine engagement with reality’. Science fiction writers are ultimately interested in the implications of science, not necessarily whether such science may be technically possible.
The assumptions made about hard science fiction, and by extension science fiction as a whole, are demonstrated by that icon of a planet with rings, in a section of the library populated mostly by novelisations of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. It suggests that all science fiction is a genre of outer space, a genre of something ‘out there’ and not also ‘here’. It places the whole genre inside a small section of it, the space opera. It marks what science fiction is ‘about’ as distant, distant from this planet ‘we’ inhabit. It reflects the ideas of SpaceX, and the billionaire boy at its helm, Elon Musk, who is apparently going to solve our environmental and economic problems by colonising Mars and exploiting its resources. This ringed planet is, for him, for this library system, flat and neat, something that can be held between two fingers.
Like Samuel R. Delany, I’m more interested in describing science fiction than I am in defining it, and so struggle map its limits. Can it be a simple as when science is fictional? And what is science? Is that a metonym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Science fiction is often framed as about the future, or a future, but it can also be an alternative history, a parallel present. No matter the direction it extends, it must always be in relation to the ‘real’ present (in the many ways we can define what ‘real’ and ‘present’ are, in the many ways we can define who ‘we’ refers to). There must be a here and now from which to reach out into space and time.
This here and now may not be explicitly present in a science fiction narrative, but it is always present to the reader of science fiction, the reader existing in the here and now, the reader only able to understand the differences by comparing them to the here and now. What is implied in the present, claims Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi in The Second Coming, is the possible. Berardi gestures towards science fiction when he says that the philosopher’s task is to capture the world’s tendency and to ‘enunciate the possibilities inscribed therein’. Science fiction enacts this enunciation literally, where possibilities are performed though narrative, through world building, through characters and communities and societies existing in these worlds. We read them unfolding and contemplate what brought this possibility into being, what consequences this has on subjects, objects, systems, and we reflect again upon the present.
The here and now is present in The Book of All Skies, as it is necessarily present in all science fiction, hard or soft. In his 2014 interview with Burnham, Egan said that ‘the detention of asylum seekers is unambiguously the worst thing that my own government is doing at present’ and that once he ‘had some contact with the people who were actually locked up in those places, it was impossible to ignore what they were going through’. The Book of All Skies creates a world where two members of a resource scarce society operating under capitalism enter a resource rich society operating through a gift economy, and become stuck there, must find a way to communicate and to exist in an alien environment. He is not writing a social realist narrative on Australia’s border policy and his subsequent experiences of working with refugees; as he says, science fiction is not often so intentionally obvious in its symbolism and ‘is wasted when it’s used simply to crank out metaphors for familiar things; that’s like mistaking a microscope for a paperweight’. A simple analogy to our present, to Egan’s here and now, is not available – but this present is inscribed in the fiction.
What Egan gives us is a model of two different economic systems and the ways they interact with one another, producing a narrative where Del and Imogen’s ancestors, fearing the threat of the gift economy to their own profit-driven one, destroy the known path between the two lands and obfuscate history. This narrative structure – where two once-enclaves are opened up, intentionally or not, to exchange – can be traced to utopian science fiction, such as Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). But a reader should be careful not to equate Del’s world to a dystopia and the Bounteous Lands to a utopia, but rather consider the ways that availability of resources has shaped their respective governance, language and culture.
It is never made clear to the reader who is behind the vanishing of the titular The Book of All Skies, the destruction of the mountain path and the bridge spiralling across the void. In leaving this open, Egan invites the reader to continue the speculative game, and consider what kind of individual, group, or institution would be behind it. To consider who in Egan’s here and now, in the reader’s here and now, would act and have acted similarly. And now that a path between these two societies has been made public, how might they engage with one another, how might we want to see them engage.
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Second Coming, Polity Press, 2019.
Karen Burnham, Greg Egan, University of Illinois Press, 2014.
Samuel R. Delany, Starboard Wine: Most Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, Wesleyan University Press, 2012.
Samuel R. Delany, The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch – ‘Angouleme’, Wesleyan University Press, 2014.
Howel, Elizabeth & Harvey, Alisa, Elon Musk: Revolutionary private space entrepreneur, Space.com, 2021.