Oceanic • 1998 • Planetary Romance novella by Greg Egan


First paragraph

The swell was gently lifting and lowering the boat. My breathing grew slower, falling into step with the creaking of the hull, until I could no longer tell the difference between the faint rhythmic motion of the cabin and the sensation of filling and emptying my lungs. It was like floating in darkness: every inhalation buoyed me up, slightly; every exhalation made me sink back down again.
In the bunk above me, my brother Daniel said distinctly, “Do you believe in God?”

Synopsis: Twenty thousand years ago, humans came from Earth to terraform planet Covenant. Their descendants have lost most of their knowledge and culture but reacquired technology similar to our 20th century. The population is mostly religious, believing in those humans as Angels, and in a female messianic figure called Beatrice replacing Jesus in most aspects, like faith/love/hope. But she drowned in the ocean only to rise after three days according to their belief. 

Half of the people of Covenant, the “Freelanders” life in organic ships on the ocean, whereas “Firmlanders” dwell on the continents. The story follows the Freelander boy Martin’s coming-of-age from a strict believer in Beatrice starting at the age of ten over his teenage years loosing his virginity in a rather different version, up to his adult years as a scientist.

He researches the aquatic microbes original to the planet in contrast to the terraformed biome. His research is a cul-de-sac. But one day, when he’s already given up, he uncovers that religion is opium for the people in a very literal way.

As he was walking away, I called after him, “Do you believe in God?” […]
He shook his head. “As a child I did. Not anymore. It was a nice idea … but it made no sense.” He eyed me skeptically, still unsure of my motives.
I said, “Then isn’t life unbearable?”
He laughed. “Not all the time.”

Review: I’ve always been lucky with Greg Egan’s short stories so far – examples are his mind-blowing Posthuman novelette Wang’s Carpets (review), or his Hard SF novelette Glory (review). I have yet to read a novel from him, though. This is the first story I’ve read from him covering a direct discussion of science versus religion.

He uses the engaging first perspective in a bildungsroman to lead through this well-structured novella. Naming his protagonist Martin is intentionally hinting at Martin Luther who reformed the Catholic church and led to a schism, giving him a side-kick brother called Daniel, who is a Biblical prophet literally translated to “God is my judge”. The author constructs a plausible far-future setting that check’s every Hard SF readers’ longings for speculation about terraforming, gene-editing, and apocalyptic mysteries. And he confronts the reader with a reflection of our own age of Enlightenment, just not from a historical fiction point of view but a SF one. In summary, everything that I want to read.

The only negative point that I can bring up is that the setting and plot feels extremely constructed – not only with the protagonist’s name, but also with the biochemical terraforming and everything else – in order to transport the story’s morale. 

I highly recommend this winner of several awards of 1998 for readers of Hard SF who don’t shy away from metaphoric reads. Checkout the online version referenced below, or read it within the recently published SF Masterworks collection “Best of Greg Egan”.

Meta: isfdb. Available online at the author’s website. It won the Hugo, Locus, and Asimov’s Readers Awards. I’ve read it in Dozois’s The Best of the Best Volume 2.

This entry was posted in Science Fiction, Story and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Oceanic • 1998 • Planetary Romance novella by Greg Egan

  1. pdtillman says:

    I recall not much liking this one, but that’s about it. Read when new-ish, 20-some yrs ago. I gave the collxn of that name 3 stars, but kept no notes. I definitely skipped it when reading the Dozois Best of Best #2. Older Egan, in general, works best for me. Boy peaked early!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Andreas says:

      What do you mean with „peaked early“? He‘s been published since 1983; ten years later saw his first award, but only this novella brought him his first Hugo.


      • pdtillman says:

        Per me. I prefer both his early shorts (mostly) and early novels. Oh, OK [looks]
        Distress (Subjective Cosmology #3, 1995) is his only 5-star novel for me, & it is great, ICYMI, See my GR review.
        Two 4-star novels:
        Permutation City (Subjective Cosmology #2) 1994
        Diaspora (1997) , On the re-read TBR list.
        Two 4-star collxns
        Axiomatic (1990) Own e-copy, The last Kindle book I will ever buy! Incompetent support for the Mac e-reader, Down for MONTHS!
        Luminous (1995)

        He’s done some fine work since then, in short form, and who knows how some of the older stuff holds up. But DISTRESS is GREAT!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Andreas says:

          Yes, I have that on my tbr. Can’t say when I start with a novel from him, though. I always say „I should, I should“ but then the next shiny thing comes around eating my reading time.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m reading the Best of Greg Egan collection right now, but in chunks between other books.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ola G says:

    I guess I’ll go for Distress, then 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. bormgans says:

    Yes when I read the synopsis, I thought maybe too constructed too. But then again, a novel like Incandescence had that too. I have that best of collection, but will read a novel or a novella first. I was thinking about Perhelion Summer or Zendegi.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: #SciFiMonth Mission Log: week one

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s