Orthogonal
January 13, 2015 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Greg Egan's Orthogonal Trilogy is perhaps the ultimate in hard sci-fi world building: starting by simply "changing a minus sign to a plus sign in a simple equation that governs the geometry of space-time", Mr Egan then derived, from first principles, how light, matter, energy, motion, gravity and time would work in this alternate universe. The result is 80,000 words on his web site describing the physics and cosmology of the universe (minor spoilers) and three novels: The Clockwork Rocket (extract), The Eternal Flame (extract) and The Arrows of Time (extract)

While the space-time in our universe has a Lorentzian geometry, space-time in the Orthogonal universe is Riemannian. To list all the differences this makes would lead to minor spoilers, but among other things, this means that different wavelengths of light travel at different speeds, faster-than-light travel is possible via conventional acceleration, and interstellar voyages take longer for the travellers than the people that stayed at home. Matter is structured differently, and hence biology is very different.

The Orthogonal Trilogy is a story about the inhabitants of the universe struggling to save themselves from a grave threat by scientific study of their world and cosmos. But it also touches on themes of gender politics, governance, philosophy and free will. There is a lot of physics - Greg Egan once said that "much of what I write is coming from the position that mathematics and the natural sciences are intrinsically interesting, and are as suitable as the central concerns of fiction as anything else". But many readers have found that there's also a lot going on besides the physics.

Greg Egan on metafilter previously, previously.
posted by memebake (53 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes! I have the first book, but haven't read it yet. Really looking forward to it!
posted by Kevin Street at 4:02 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I feel sort of smug that the link text (above the fold) was adequate for me to guess which minus sign would be involved even though I've never heard of the books. It's a pretty significant minus sign.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:02 PM on January 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


I have a lot of Egan's books and have enjoyed some of them. I think it's fair to say that characterisation is not his strong point: most characters only exist to lecture or to be lectured to. I think this series (which I have only read in excerpt form) is mostly like that; a bit better than some others but I still had the feeling that I was sitting in a classroom before Mr Egan, third form physics teacher.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:11 PM on January 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


Joe in Australia: "Mr Egan, third form physics teacher."

Aren't third form students something like 13 years old? Those are some pretty hardcore 13-year-olds.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:14 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wolfdog: "I feel sort of smug that the link text (above the fold) was adequate for me to guess which minus sign would be involved even though I've never heard of the books. It's a pretty significant minus sign."

It's this minus sign (SLYT - Max Tegmark and Brian Cox), isn't it???
posted by symbioid at 4:17 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Changing it to i would have been audacious.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:20 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Aren't third form students something like 13 years old?

... might be fourteen I suppose

Those are some pretty hardcore 13-year-olds.

You know, all joking aside, I think Egan's right about the way we treat a lot of physics as OMG SO HARD!!!

If kids can do square roots they can do Special Relativity, at least to the extent that they see what's going on.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:21 PM on January 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have had difficulty following and/or staying interested in Egan over the length of a novel, but Axiomatic is one of my favorite collections ever.
posted by batfish at 4:22 PM on January 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


A Square Root you say? Intriguing. *strokes goatee while backing into a closet*
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:24 PM on January 13, 2015 [7 favorites]


I can't do square roots.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:25 PM on January 13, 2015


This sounds way better than my sci-fi novel, where I changed all the speed limits to negative numbers.

"Your car crash book is unrealistic," my wife said. "People would stop driving in reverse."
posted by compartment at 4:32 PM on January 13, 2015 [25 favorites]


(Square roots are easy: Just use Newton's Method.)

sorry, couldn't resist.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:33 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


You all know that Greg Egan is actually an advanced AI computer in a bunker underneath the University of Western Australia right?
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:38 PM on January 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


*shakes fist theatrically in Greg Egan's direction*

I have a bloody Bachelor's degree in Astrophysics, mind you, and Schild's Ladder was some of the hardest hard Sci-Fi I've ever read (you can read it for the plot, but the plot is only half the fun, especially in Schild's Ladder).

I know what I'm reading for the next 1-3 months.
posted by chimaera at 4:46 PM on January 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


huh, what's with the radial button controlled margins in that netspace link...?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 4:58 PM on January 13, 2015


For some reason while reading the book I couldn't help but imagine that the characters were all microscopic. But I can't think of a way it would be possible to relate lengths in our universe to lengths in theirs, so I suppose I might just as well imagine that they were towering giants for all that it could be founded from this or that observation made in the book.
posted by jepler at 5:01 PM on January 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


As long as the moons of Mars rise in the east on page 92, I think the alteration's a good 'un.
posted by Devonian at 5:19 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


The most interesting character in any Egan novel is the universe in which it takes place.
posted by books for weapons at 5:38 PM on January 13, 2015 [12 favorites]


Schild's Ladder and Incandesence are the only two Egan I've read and they appear to be object lessons in how one can base a science fiction novel around a hard science idea and why you really shouldn't.

His novels remind me of the Silmarillion in a way (and I'll bet that's the first time anyone has written that sentence). They barely work as novels and they aren't really supposed to. They are explorations of ideas. Examinations of a universe. The fact that the characters are unrealistic is totally missing the point.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 6:16 PM on January 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


I wonder if Stanislaw Lem ever got to read some of Greg Egan's stuff.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:30 PM on January 13, 2015


Well now I know what I'm listening to after I finish A Dance with Dragons.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:36 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I went through the maths department at the University of Western Australia a few years after Greg Egan. He was certainly remembered by the lecturers long after he'd gone. He gained some notoriety for writing some 50 pages of notes and corrections to the honours year functional analysis course and giving them to the lecturer. The thing is the lecturer on that course was a really tight lecturer (I also did it in my honours), his proofs were beautifully structured and described, airtight, easily the best I ever saw as an undergraduate. That Greg Egan could find a errors or improvements and was confident enough to give them to the lecturer still boggles my mind.
posted by drnick at 6:59 PM on January 13, 2015 [14 favorites]


That Greg Egan could find a errors or improvements and was confident enough to give them to the lecturer still boggles my mind.

This doesn't surprise me. If you think about it, to write the kind of stuff Egan writes and have it published and exposed to the entire world would take some serious cahones.

I thought Permutation City is his best novel. And in general, he's much better in short form fiction.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:10 PM on January 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I understood just enough to regret not understanding more. Fascinating!
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 7:16 PM on January 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


I read the first volume. Sadly it was about as difficult as studying for a graduate level cosmology seminar. When the scientist characters made a discovery about their universe, I would just think "huh?", instead of half-predicting the outcome as if I was reading a whodunnit.

I would read a non-fiction article about what's going on in that universe, though. That might explain why did that character explode in the first chapter?
posted by monotreme at 8:40 PM on January 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


That might explain why did that character explode in the first chapter?

SPOILER ALERT! (though it is first chapter, so maybe not?)




It's an outcome of the fact of turning relativity on its head: as you move faster, you gain negative kinetic energy, and secondarily, light has a nonzero rest mass. One result of those two things means that to emit light, you have to take away negative kinetic energy, that is you *increase* kinetic energy. Therefore an important part of life is to regulate that output and not output *too much* light, or your atoms will gain to much kinetic energy and will go boom


SPOILER DONE.
posted by chimaera at 9:06 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, if you move your kinetic energy decreases, and if you emit light your KE increases? Why not just stop emitting light? I guess I need to study the article a lot more.
posted by monotreme at 9:43 PM on January 13, 2015


Very cool, any comments on Greg Egan's other books?
posted by jeffburdges at 11:50 PM on January 13, 2015


My take on Greg Egan's books would be something like this. Firstly, all of them are great in some way. You can't go wrong with any of the short story collections, they just bubble with idea; though Axiomatic is my clear favourite. Every story is like a beautiful little axiom system with the rules layed out at the beginning and then you watch the rules unfold into their consequences like a proof of theorem. Delightful. I still think about them a lot, particularly ones like Learning to Be Me ("I was six years old when my parents told me that there was a small, dark jewel side my skull, learning to be me").

With the novels the earlier ones tend to be more story driven, though there is often a mathematics/physics/computational basis, and the later ones tend to be more bit less driven by the story and more by the maths/physics. With some authors it takes them a while to develop but in my opinion Greg Egan was great from the start, so there is no work to avoid. I really enjoyed his earlier novels, Quarantine, Distress, Permutation City and Diaspora. I also enjoyed the later work, but they can require more concentration, though they can be very rewarding for that. Schilds Ladder in particular really bent my brain despite having an undergrad double major in maths and physics and a PhD in areas of pure maths not unrelated to the subject of the book. But still, it's a great book! For a person new to Greg Egan reading them in rough order would probably be no bad thing.
posted by drnick at 12:20 AM on January 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


For some reason while reading the book I couldn't help but imagine that the characters were all microscopic.

Have you actually seen how big our own universe is? Microscopic describes us, really.
posted by hippybear at 12:27 AM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Schild's Ladder and Incandesence ... They barely work as novels and they aren't really supposed to. They are explorations of ideas. Examinations of a universe. The fact that the characters are unrealistic is totally missing the point.

By "unrealistic" I can only suppose you must mean it's not believable that such radically alien characters would be remotely comprehensible to us at all.
posted by straight at 12:49 AM on January 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


Just finished the trilogy. I think many readers end up skimming the physics bits (there are many many scenes where two scientists talk to each other about their experiments) but I can see why they are in there; its important for Greg to establish how the protagonists are able to learn about their world. In some sorts of fiction, you have 'clever' characters that suddenly come up with a world-changing plot-advancing idea out of nowhere; In Orthogonal, every discovery they make is the result of careful experimentation, thought and debate.

But there's still a great story (very mild back-of-dustjacket spoilers ahead). The central idea: that the protagonists bootstrap space technology and launch a generation ship into space, with the express idea of giving the generation ship an infinite amount of time for its inhabitants to make scientific advances, and then come back and save the homeworld (where only a few years will have passed) is a very epic concept to base a story around; you have bravery, separation, forming of a new society, the strange life of the many generations working to save ancestors they'll never see. I found the characters very relatable (despite what people say about Greg's characterisation) and each book built to a very satisfying climax that is character and emotion driven as much as science driven. The end of the second book in particular was very powerful, and was largely about relationships and society (to put it vaguely) rather than physics.
posted by memebake at 12:58 AM on January 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've only read Permutation city, but I liked it very much and still sometimes think back on it, especially when the subject of immortality comes to mind.
posted by Drexen at 3:34 AM on January 14, 2015


I recently finished Incandesence. Blipped over most of the physics (never even learned the names of the directions). The wider universe it was set in was interesting, but the actual plot fell kind of flat.
posted by signal at 4:40 AM on January 14, 2015


re: Incandesence - there are some subtleties in the ending that I had missed, that Egan hints at here. ROT13: Enxrfu qbrf abg ivfvg gur Fcyvagre, ur ivfvgf n fvzvyne unovgng beovgvat n arhgeba fgne. Gur Fcyvagre vf beovgvat n oynpx ubyr (gur 'uho'), naq n irel ovt bar - gur pragre bs bhe tnynkl. Gur guernq bs gur abiry qrnyvat jvgu gur Fcyvagre vf sebz gur qvfgnag cnfg. Va gur svany puncgre, Uns fhttrfgf gung bar qnl gur Fcyvagre vaunovgnagf fubhyq svaq n jnl bs xrrcvat crbcyr njnl sebz gur Uho, orpnhfr vg vf fb qnatrebhf 'gur jnl lbh thvqr n ungpuyvat njnl sebz qnatre: whfg cvpx gurz hc naq ghea gurz nebhaq'. Gung vf rknpgyl jung gur Nybbs qb. Gur vaunovgnagf bs gur Fcyvagre riraghnyyl orpbzr gur Nybbs.
posted by memebake at 5:19 AM on January 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sigh, I'm one of those bad readers of Incandescence who missed that thing that is in memebake's rot13'd text. :(
posted by jepler at 5:49 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Quarantine is a pretty kickass, pulp-inflected quantum noir. Distress is probably my favourite Egan novel as it has some really subtle & lovely character work along with all the hard science & worldbuilding.
posted by sixswitch at 6:38 AM on January 14, 2015


Greg Egan is one of my favorite writers; I have not started the Orthogonal series but they are in the plan. He has a way of completely running with an idea that should work very well with this concept. I needed a break, though, after not liking where Zendegi went.

Permutation City is my stock recommendation, though Diaspora is on my list of perfect books. It was the first Egan I read and did so many things I had never imagined possible.
posted by mountmccabe at 9:11 AM on January 14, 2015


My initial understanding of Incandescence was off, too. ROT13: V unq gubhtug vg jnf gur bccbfvgr. Mnx qvq abg fgneg sebz abguvat; vg unf orra n juvyr fvapr V ernq gur obbx ohg V erpnyy gurz univat n yrtraq gung vzcyvrq gung guvf yvar bs fpvragvsvp vadhvel jnf fcnexrq ol terngf bs gur cnfg, vafcverq ol ivfvgbef. V unq gubhtug gung Enxrfu jnf ivfvgvat gur Fcyvagre ybat orsber Mnx naq Ebv. Ohg V thrff V zvffrq gur oynpx ubyr/arhgeba fgne qvssrerapr.

I really like Egan's books and I don't understand the complaints about missing plots and weak characterization but his defense of Incandescence there rankles me a little, and not just because I would have a wonderful time at the Bayreuth Festival. The review he skewers is awful but it should not come as such a shock to him that he has a better understanding of his novel than those of us that did not write it.
posted by mountmccabe at 9:32 AM on January 14, 2015


I gave up on Orthogonal soon into the second book when the zany adventures in Opposite World (with a bolted-on lecture about feminism) had lost its charm.

However, I stand by my opinion that the Amalgam as set out in the Incandescence companion story Riding the Crocodile is the only plausible Hard SF description of a pan-galactic civilization I've ever read.
posted by whuppy at 11:00 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, if you move your kinetic energy decreases, and if you emit light your KE increases? Why not just stop emitting light? I guess I need to study the article a lot more.

More or less, yes. It's important to have mechanisms/structures to prevent that sort of "criticality event" (thinking of nuclear chain reactions as an analog) -- an old creature who is breaking down might lose the ability to regulate that emission and be unable to stop it.
posted by chimaera at 11:12 AM on January 14, 2015


But wouldn't "Don't emit light" be a really, really good mechanism to prevent it?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:21 AM on January 14, 2015


Permutation City is my stock recommendation, though Diaspora is on my list of perfect books.

I like Diaspora better but wish I'd read it second because it's kind of a spoiler for Permutation City, not because the plots are connected, but because some of the ideas that are meant to be surprising in Permutation City are just presented as a given in Diaspora.

However, I stand by my opinion that the Amalgam as set out in the Incandescence companion story Riding the Crocodile is the only plausible Hard SF description of a pan-galactic civilization I've ever read.

"Riding the Crocodile" has a pretty fantastic method for reaching an arbitrary point in the galaxy in the shortest amount of time Einstein will allow, as well as a pretty nifty reason for wanting to do so. It also occurs to me that re-reading it would be a good way to celebrate Rosetta's successful comet landing of the Philae probe.
posted by straight at 11:22 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think Quarantine is Egan's most fun novel, and Axiomatic is the second best single-author collection of hard SF after Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others.
posted by straight at 11:28 AM on January 14, 2015


But wouldn't "Don't emit light" be a really, really good mechanism to prevent it?

Even in our universe, that's not so easy. You're doing it right now, in the infrared.
posted by chimaera at 11:30 AM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


But wouldn't "Don't emit light" be a really, really good mechanism to prevent it?

In Orthogonal, plants emit light but 'people' and animals don't, unless they get burned or through old age. There's a pretty cool action set piece in the third book based on this.
posted by memebake at 11:53 AM on January 14, 2015


While we're talking Egan short stories, my favourite is Crystal Nights. You can read it via that link for free, but its also in the Oceanic short story collection.
posted by memebake at 11:57 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


But wouldn't "Don't emit light" be a really, really good mechanism to prevent it?
The sequence with the arborine in the lecture hall (Clockwork Rocket chapter 4) establishes that animal nervous systems use light for signaling instead of electrical impulses.
posted by books for weapons at 3:48 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


By "unrealistic" I can only suppose you must mean it's not believable that such radically alien characters would be remotely comprehensible to us at all.

You can't really avoid that, because you have to (a) be able to think them up and (b) write a story about them. Describing the truly alien is considerably harder than explaining bitcoin to Julius Caesar.

No, I was mostly thinking about weak characterization in general. I shouldn't have used the word "unrealistic". Science fiction isn't known for well drawn characters (or great prose, for that matter), so don't think I'm knocking on Egan particularly.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 4:08 PM on January 14, 2015


My initial understanding of Incandescence was off, too. ROT13: V unq gubhtug vg jnf gur bccbfvgr. Mnx qvq abg fgneg sebz abguvat; vg unf orra n juvyr fvapr V ernq gur obbx ohg V erpnyy gurz univat n yrtraq gung vzcyvrq gung guvf yvar bs fpvragvsvp vadhvel jnf fcnexrq ol terngf bs gur cnfg, vafcverq ol ivfvgbef. V unq gubhtug gung Enxrfu jnf ivfvgvat gur Fcyvagre ybat orsber Mnx naq Ebv. Ohg V thrff V zvffrq gur oynpx ubyr/arhgeba fgne qvssrerapr.

I honestly think that was an intentional set-up. You're supposed to think that until Zak's comment at the end, at which point you go, "OH! so it's totally the other way around!"
posted by cthuljew at 1:55 AM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


That Greg Egan could find errors or improvements and was confident enough to give them to the lecturer still boggles my mind.

"I've stepped aside from the great mathematical challenge of our time - developing the theory of infinity-categories and the new world of math this opens up. Instead, I'm thinking about 'exceptional structures' in algebra, and their role in physics: things like the octonions, the group called E8, and the Leech lattice. I've put enough time into these over the years that I can come up with cute ideas without a massive investment of effort... thanks to help from Greg Egan, who is great at proving or disproving my conjectures."
posted by kliuless at 8:53 AM on January 17, 2015


You know, all joking aside, I think Egan's right about the way we treat a lot of physics as OMG SO HARD!!!

As someone going through physics classes right now, I feel comfortable saying that while physics may or may not be objectively challenging, there is somehow a dearth of instructors who are able to cleanly explain its concepts. I wish Egan would write a physics textbook. Just regular ol' Earth physics. I'd probably get a lot out of a story that relied on weird applications of torque or tensions.

Also that sounds kind of pun-y but it is a serious thing!
posted by curious nu at 10:54 PM on January 30, 2015


so i was watching a khan academy video on linear algebra (orthogonal complements ;) and i was wondering why he keeps repeating himself when he writes things down and found this other video by the minute physics guy explaining how he approaches pedagogy...

anyway, i agree it'd be awesome if egan (& baez!) wrote an online mathematical physics textbook with a relatively intuitive explanation of quantum mechanics. what's neat i guess is that there's all these resources available, increasingly to everyone, but it's still gonna take a lot of work and effort to figure out how best to evenly distribute the future.
posted by kliuless at 8:08 AM on February 2, 2015


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