Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

"Learning to Be Me"
Greg Egan, 1990

The Australian science-fiction writer Greg Egan has been a prolific contributor to the scene since the late 1980s at both short story and novel length. His great gifts as a writer--brilliant conceits, concision, scientific depth and philosophical complexity--are better suited to the shorter form, and while his novels are good, I've always found them slightly unengaging. But as a short-story writer, he has few equals in the sf genre.

"Learning to Be Me" is just about the best of his short stories, a corrosively powerful examination of the nature of identity and consciousness with bears comparison with Kafka, and an opening line of Austenesque brilliance:
I was six years old when my parents told me that there was a small, dark jewel inside my skull, learning to me be.
The 'jewel' in question is a kind of miniature hard-drive onto which every thought, sensation and emotion of the host is engraved. This can then be implanted into a new body, providing a quasi-immortality to the host. Once the technology has become established, it becomes the fashion for people in their twenties voluntarily to 'die' and move their jewel to a new host body to avoid the dangers of accident. "Learning to Be Me" is the story of a man who tries to identify his sense of self with the jewel and not his body to overcome his fear of physical death. The story's resolution, which I won't give away, is chilling, and not one to make us desire this kind of immortality.

Egan's story is an effective fictional exploration of the idea of self, told as so often in his fiction, through a dysfunctional relationship. Few writers pack so much into so short a space, and in his best work he combines speculative originality with emotional power.

How has it influenced me?

Egan is about as far from me in the speculative fiction universe as it's possible to be. He excels in short, pithy work at the hard-science end of the spectrum. While I've long been an admirer of his writing, it's something I could never do, and have never tried to. But he serves as enduring reminder of just how good science fiction can be--and why most of those who sneer at it are arguing from a position of ignorance.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Short stories are not cut-down novels; they are a wholly different forms with different requirements and effects

The short story can be a powerful means of exploring philosophical questions (and by extension, novels are not)

In the short form of fiction, uniquely, strong characterisation is not essential


Anonymous said...

I too have read this story in a collection of short science fiction, a collection that also introduced me to Ursula LeGuin. I'm in a class right now dealing with nanotechnology, and this story immediately came to mind when we started talking about the possibility of mind transfer to a more permanent body.

I quote, "Short stories are not cut-down novels; they are a wholly different forms with different requirements and effects"

And I would agree wholly! I have truly enjoyed both short stories in science fiction and also longer works, by authors such as Heinlein and Herbert. Not sure if you ever expected someone to comment on such an old post, but I thought you might see it and enjoy the fact that someone shares the joy this story brought!

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks for the comment, Andrew. I think the short-story form is very well-suited to science fiction, where the core of the art is generally in the ideas rather than the characters. "Learning to Be Me" is one of the best.