Rakesh is sick of wandering the well-traveled galaxy, searching for a reason to live. That's when a mysterious alien tells him about an uncatalogued, DNA-based species who have lived in isolation for millions of years.
Greg Egan, author of Diaspora and other great space operas, released his most recent novel Incandescence late last year on Night Shade Books. Although occasionally uneven and frustrating, the book is a terrifically interesting thought experiment that will appeal to anyone who likes a strong, intelligent science mystery. And Egan's civilization-building is simply breathtaking. His deft creation of an alien civilization of tiny insects living in orbit around a neutron star at the center of the galaxy provides such an appealing narrative throughline that you won't be able to put Incandescence down until its extremely weird conclusion.
The novel is split between the point of view of a tiny insect named Roi, and the point of view of Rakesh, a bored human living in a far-future civilization known as the Amalgam. A version of Iain M. Banks' Culture, the Amalgam is a hodge-podge of aliens and intelligent machines who have colonized the Milky Way's entire stellar disk. The only part of the galaxy they have yet to explore is its white-hot heart, the dense bulge of young stars and black holes at its center, which is entirely controlled by a benign but isolationist group called the Aloof.
One day Rakesh is randomly approached by a stranger who asks if he's "a child of DNA." When Rakesh answers in the affirmative, the stranger asks him to promise to deal with something she's discovered, an asteroid floating in the galaxy's center that contains the remains of a DNA-based species. Intrigued, Rakesh and a friend follow the stranger's map to the asteroid, aided by the Aloof - who never show themselves, but will teleport them wherever they want to go. Apparently, the Aloof are guided by some kind of ethical desire to help DNA-based creatures stay in contact with each other.
While Rakesh seeks out his DNA-based cousins, Roi the insect is living in a peaceful, socialist culture in a world whose properties are intriguing and bizarre - gravity makes no sense, light suffuses everything, and social arrangements are the opposite of what you'd expect among humans. When Roi meets Zak, another insect who is trying to figure out what "weight" is, she gets swept up into a scientific enlightenment among her people. And not a moment too soon. It turns out that her homeworld's orbit is being disturbed by a passing stellar remnant, and they'll have to work fast to save civilization.
Of course, the cousins that Rakesh seeks at the galaxy's core are Roi's people, but Egan doesn't ever give you a simple resolution to Rakesh and Roi's simultaneous quests for answers. There is no easy reunion moment, because the more we learn about Roi's people, the more we realize that Rakesh's burden goes far beyond simply establishing contact with a long-lost branch of the panspermia.
While Rakesh is using a minute avatar to slowly initiate contact with one branch of Roi's people, Roi and her cohort are racing against time to rescue their world from fiery death in the meeting of two unstable star shards. Both creatures are trying to solve scientific mysteries - Rakesh to discover how Roi's people came to live in the harsh conditions of the Bulge, and Roi to discover the physical laws that govern the motion of her world.
It's often fun to watch how they solve these mysteries, but Egan's painstaking attention to detail sometimes bogs the narrative down. Especially when he's showing how Roi's people derive what amounts to Einstein's theory of relativity in a very different gravitational field from Earth's, readers may feel compelled to skim. I think the problem is that Egan's descriptions are too dense to be educational for people unfamiliar with the ins and outs of physical science. But people who are already physics geeks may find these scenes a little elementary. Essentially, Egan missed the mark in these sections of the book. But the story itself is so compelling on a human level that I found myself drawn through the endless scenes of bugs throwing rocks through vacuum to study their motion.
And for people who like their stories meaty and complex, the novel's ending (which I won't spoil) is a welcome and brilliant surprise. Despite its flaws, I would strongly recommend Incandescence to anyone who loves speculating about what a scientific revolution would look like on a very alien world.