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Axiomatic by Greg Egan

Axiomatic (1995)

by Greg Egan

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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My reaction to reading this collection in 1998. Spoilers follow.

“The Infinite Assassin” -- The cover blurb on this collection stridently says it’s “Science fiction for people who like science fiction”, and I can’t imagine Egan as an entry for many people who don’t already read the genre. Egan is sometimes accused of producing stories with lots of neat ideas but bland, forgettable characters – the same criticism leveled at science fiction as a whole before the New Wave. I’m firmly in the camp that, if necessary – particularly at shorter lengths, characters should serve the idea and become symbolic Everymen. Here I don’t think Egan quite pulls off the rationalization of the danger driving the story’s plot – the dangers of “whirlpools” causing actual physical exchanges between the alternate quantum realities perceived by the users of the drug S. The narrator is a cipher, predictably given that he’s an unusually stable personality across universes and all his failures and successes, as the end of the story states, are realized. I liked the idea of an assassin personality existing across several, possibly infinite set of, worlds and always assigned to kill dangerous dreamers.

“The Hundred Light-Year Diary” -- This story plays off the common regret of most people expressed in the saying “If I only knew then what I know now … “ Well, in this story, that notion is partly realized. It is discovered that information can be sent back in time. Most people keep a diary, limited to 100 words a day, which is broadcast backwards in time upon your death. You can literally know all the major events of your life in advance – assuming you’re honest. (The machines that make this possible are, given their effect, ironically called Hazzard Machines.). And that’s one of the main realizations that the narrator comes to, that he and others and the governments and corporations that use most of the capacity of the Hazzard Machines frequently lie in their records for a variety of reasons. I’ve only read one other Egan story and his novel Distress, but Egan seems preoccupied with truly large philosophical issues and two in particular: Can you ever have too much knowledge and the question of personal identity. This story shows the interplay between the two notions. In a world of seeming predestination, how do you live with that? (Egan may not be skilled at creating particular, memorable characters, but he is skilled in depicting the psychological and social reactions to his premises, and that’s all that’s required, a symbolic depiction of Everyman’s response to his bizarre premises.) Some, like the narrator’s adulterous lover (the narrator speculates that his wife knew before they ever met that she’d marry a creep) don’t keep a diary. Some, like the narrator, lie to their diary or write it in innuendo only obvious after crucial events have happened. Two large social reactions are in the cults of ignorance (“ignorance cults” show up as a plausible concept in Distress too): one believes humans have ceased being human, are meat puppets since they can’t choose between right or wrong; the other embraces the idea as meaning the end of responsibility, guilt, striving, failure, anxiety. For his part, the narrator thinks the Hazzard Machines provide him greater freedom, that he and his actions are shaped by the past and the future. (Politics has become an odd pantomime with a pre-ordained outcome.) The narrator thinks our nature decides what we do “and what greater ‘freedom’ could anyone demand?”. At least he feels this way until he discovers the lies of his own diary and the official utopian lies of future history, society’s diaries. The future utopian lies cover current genocides, and, in an ambiguous ending, the narrator still thinks who he is determines the future, but that identity is shaped by social manipulation and the times and personality manipulates the time. Thus, after coasting in a world of seeming pre-destination, the narrator realizes what most mature people do: we have to try to influence the world, which also acts on us, in a moral way though our influence may be small or non-existent. That holds true whether we know the future or not. This echoes the narrator’s realization after recognizing the truth of biological and cosmological facts in Distress. Thus, at story’s end, the narrator begins to pay attention to his now and not the future in an attempt to learn the truth of the world.

“Eugene” -- Egan as always shown bursts, of wit but this story has more with than usual and is a satire on genetically engineering your child to be a competitive genius. Geneticist and fertility expert Sam Cook sells a lottery winning couple on trying out (and paying for) the most advanced suite of possible techniques for creating a genius. A witty denouement of the story takes this notion to a surprising, but logical notion. Cook has formalized his knowledge of genetic effects so completely that some computers run a simulation of the engineered child’s future personality. That simulated personality takes the couples’ money and disburses it to various charitable organizations achieving the ends of doing great things for the human race that was Cook’s selling point for designing the child in the first place. The couple decides – and can’t after having so much of their fortune taken by their simulated brat (I didn’t approve of that plot twist) – not to go through with the child. As the simulated personality says, why exist when he can achieve so much without existing.

“The Caress” -- A strange tale of an eccentric, perhaps insane, and very rich artist who thinks artists actually view another universe which we can import into our world by recreating the artwork’s scene. He cheats death through the strange mechanism of implanting slices of his brain into a clone. He manipulates both genes and emotions to recreate a strange painting called The Caress by Fernand Khnoff (a real painting). To recreate the scene of the sphinx meeting Oedipus, he creates a genetic chimera, manipulates a police detective (the details of his drug mediated life and how he handles tips on his cases were interesting) into caring for her, and surgically alters him to look like the paintings’ Oedipus, all to create a living copy of the painting for a few minutes.

“Blood Sisters” -- Tale of identical twins, the victims (one in an emotional sense, the other in a physical, dead sense) of an unethical medical experiment. Both come down with one of the suite of Monte Carlo viruses (biowarfare viruses created via applied evolutionary techniques and then accidentally released) that preys on their genotype. Both are given medicine, but one is not told she has been given a worthless placebo while the other gets a cure. Egan seems understandably upset at the ethics of denying probable lifesaving experiment to people in the name of doubleblind tests. This is a real issue medicine has started to deal with. The story involves her reactions to their illness and her sister’s death. Again, Egan is capable of psychological realism even if he doesn’t create a specific and memorable character.

“Axiomatic” -- Interesting tale of brain implants and a man who gets one to steel his desire for revenge and murder. (Hardly a new notion. George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen series worked this vein.) He opposes capital punishment. The story ends on the disturbing note of the narrator picking up an idea from his wife’s murderer (the object of his vengeance): that he should regard her death as being insignificant as the “death of a fly or an amoeba.” It will make his life easier to get an implant that instills this notion, but it seems cruel, ungrateful, and inhuman.

“The Safe-Deposit Box” -- This story of a person daily shifting identities with the males (within a certain age range) of a city at first seemed like a fantasy (and a bit like tv’s Quantum Leap though I doubt this was Egan’s inspiration), but Egan eventually offers a quasi-rationalization to make the story sf. The narrator’s peculiar dilemma is well worked out and stems from an insane neurosurgeon father who stimulated his son’s developing brain while systematically destroying sections of it. I liked the various wives, siblings, and parents he had being sort of comfortable manifestations of an archetype to him. He always shifted identity from body to body so knows nothing else, no “real” family. That son, now institutionalized, may be the narrator whose consciousness flits from brain to brain in a sort of timeshare scheme.

“Seeing” -- This story takes an idea of cognitive science, that we construct a “primary model” to organize our sensory input, an plays with a variation of it. A movie (actually he uses “software avatars” as standin for certain directors and actors and makes movies that died in development or sequels to classics) producer suffers brain damage in the “associative cortex” which causes him to model the world as if he were floating above his body. His new perspective (literally) on life lends to a new, more generous moral stance – though it seems less based on generosity than the aesthetics of the narrator watching himself be generous.

“A Kidnapping” -- Sf stories about personality constructs are not new. Nor is the idea that they can provide some sort of immortality via simply encoding the information of a personality into another matrix. Egan uses the idea here, though, in a new and witty way and to explore questions of intimacy and philosophy in ways that reminded me a bit of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song for Lya”. The owner of a gallery selling computer animation and wallpaper (Egan throws in some plausible details on the economics and security necessary to profit from the sale of such easily copied intellectual property) gets a call – a “prank” as it turns out (actually the intent and legality of the act make it extortion) – stating his wife has been kidnapped and to immediately pay the ransom. The call is soon revealed to be a hoax. The narrator/gallery owner notices the telling details, and his wife says her alleged image is nothing like her. To the narrator, though, her looks and, more importantly, her personality on the fake call and utterly convincing. And they continue to be convincing through several more calls. The narrator finds out the simulation’s accuracy derives from his “scanned” memories. Scanning is a process where, after a person dies, his personality’s copy lives on in a virtual world (which proceeds at a different time rate). Thus the simulation of his wife seems utterly convincing (and he eventually pays the ransom) to him because it’s identical to the construct in his mind. His wife, whose internal self-construct is different, doesn’t find it a good copy. The narrator and his wife, who refuses to be scanned – she takes the view that a second copy is just a copy, discuss the philosophical implications of scanned copies and the kidnapping. The narrator takes the view that all we possess of our loved ones, be it memories or scanned reconstructions, are imitations.

“Learning to Be Me” -- This story takes place in a society transformed by the Ndoli Device, a very durable device that records memories and personalities and, eventually, is substituted for a person’s brain. The central philosophical question here is one of those from Egan’s “A Kidnapping”: is a perfect copy of an individual’s mind identical (from the inside of “living” in the mind) to the original? (Many sf stories treat this whole issue cavalierly such as Clifford D. Simak’s The Goblin Reservation and, to a lesser extent, Algis Budrys' Rogue Moon.) Egan offers no final answer (it would be very hard to). The main pleasure of the story is the subcultures of those who don’t go through the culturally normal procedure of getting their brain scraped out of their skull and replaced with the Ndoli Device. The unjeweled form social clubs. Some form paramilitary groups fighting, as they see it, body snatchers. Most talk of nothing else but their “fear of switching”.

“The Moat” -- This story uses a thoroughly frightening and creepy idea also featured in Egan’s Distress: replacing the four base nucleotides in DNA with four other nucleotides. This would render the resulting organism completely invulnerable to infection diseases. In Distress this was undertaken by rich survivalists who planned on surviving the post-holocaust world by eating grass and old tires. Here the notion may be put to use by a cabal of wealthy elite only able to breed with each other to sustain the genetic difference.

“The Walk” -- Like many Egan storie,s this one has a philosophical dialogue on matters of existence and the afterlife. Here, though, the dialogue takes between a hitman and his intended victim. The hitman has the peculiar notion that he will live on (and he strenuously denies the validity of reincarnation) if his victim accepts, with the aid of a nano brain implant, his philosophy of life grafted on his brain. The narrator victim accepts, and the hitman kills himself.

“The Cutie” -- This story features a very sick idea and technology I can definitely see people utilizing. The single male narrator, desiring a child, buys a Cutie kit (Shades of William Tenn’s “Child Play”). Cuties are derivatives of human stock but genetically engineered to not develop higher brain functions and to die at age four. They are, in effect, pets for those who want a human infant but not “surly six-year-olds, or rebellious teenagers”. Legally, they are not human. The narrator becomes pregnant (an added feature of the kit) with a Cutie derived from his DNA thus also experiencing the “joys” of motherhood. Unfortunately, the narrator buys a cheap, pirated version of the Cutie kit and his Cutie doesn’t die as scheduled.

“Into Darkness” -- This is one of Egan’s less successful stories. Essentially it is a metaphor of life realized with a confusingly detailed spacetime anomaly that randomly (more or less) sweeps down to trap people in a zone where they can only move forward with darkness to escape. The narrator rescues people from these events and explicitly sees the inability to retreat and the darkness of the future as symbolizing our journey through life. Egan’s fiction usually seems to deal with more plausible ideas and their implications and not just through out wonders to use as metaphors.

“Appropriate Love” -- Here Egan again bases a story around a bizarre medical notion: a woman, for financial and insurance purposes, carries the brain of her injured husband in her body for two years until a body can be grown for him. This strains her relationship when he is finally rebuilt. She feels resentful at the convenience and (this is not handled very clearly) has tanged emotions about the brain being a sort of child rather than her husband.

“Closer” -- This story is a sequel of sorts to Egan’s “Learning to Be Me”. Both stories feature the Ndoli Device which records personality and memory, but this story seems to be set further in the future of that particular universe. Here the male narrator constantly asks greater intimacy with his female lover. At first, they use the Ndoli Device recordings of their personalities to inhabit various body permutations (male-female, female-male, female-female, male-male) to gain different perspectives on the sexual part of their relationship. They also undergo an experimental procedure which brings their minds into synch. Eventually the couple splits. The narrator discovers that too much intimacy is possible. While he wanted to now his lover better, she was attracted to him for his alieness and mystery.

“Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies” -- This is a more fanciful story than usual for Egan. Using the language of chaos theory, he postulates a social collapse when people in different geographical attraction basins adopt various religious and political ideologies. His narrator and friends have not settled in any basin and carefully navigate the terrain in order not to be sucked into any basins. However, it is speculated these wanderers may simply have a complex orbit about another attractor or they may be able to escape the are all together. ( )
1 vote RandyStafford | Aug 10, 2013 |
Greg Egan's short stories are both deeply grim and great escapism. Most of his stories explore really compelling ideas. I highly recommend because he wields his intensity well so you don't get depressed, but rather excited about his stories. Recommend!
  bianca.sayan | Jun 14, 2013 |
I enjoyed this one more than Luminous, which is good: otherwise, I'd be done with Egan.

Bonus points for using "meat puppet"! ( )
  GinnyTea | Mar 31, 2013 |
If you have any will to live left over after reading Peter Watts, try Egan. ( )
  zed_lopez | Mar 31, 2013 |
Raccolta di racconti piuttosto varia, molti quelli interessanti. Una buona unione tra fantascienza e concetti etici e morali che vengono trattati in ogni racconto.

The Infinite Assassin ★★★★
In una serie infinita di mondi paralleli vi sono infiniti assassini dalle probabilità di successo variabili, non tutti falliscono e non tutti portano a termine il loro compito; ma allora, si chiede il protagonista, chi sono io tra quelli?

The Hundred Light-Year Diary ★★★★
E se la propria vita fosse già stabilita in un diario scritto negli anni ma disponibile fin da ragazzi? (Riflessione interessante, ma non scordiamoci delle omissioni).

Eugene ★★★.5
E se fosse possibile ottenere il figlio perfetto?

The Caress ★★.5
Tutto parte dal dipinto "The Caress" per poi sfociare in omicidi e manipolazioni genetiche.

Blood Sisters ★★★★
In un futuro la lotta di due gemelle contro la stessa malattia mortale, etica e menzogne nell'industruia farmaceutica.

Axiomatic ★★★
Sull'esistenza di impianti capaci di modificare la personalità degli utilizzatori.

The Safe-Deposit Box ★★
Su un uomo che vive ogni giorno all'interno di una persona differente senza avere un corpo proprio.

Seeing ★★
Racconto basato sull'idea di una esperienza extra-corporale.

A Kidnapping ★★★.5
Il rapimento in un futuro in cui è possibile depositare copie di sè da attivare una volta morti.

Learning to Be Me ★★★★
Un impianto installato nel cervello prende il posto della persona una volta morta. L'impianto è in continuo apprendimento per poter replicare gli atteggiamenti dell'utente.

The vat ★★

The Walk ★★★.5
Un assassino che invita le sue vittime ad installare impianti per comprendere la sua filosofia.

The cutie ★★★★
Il mercato propone i "cutie", surrogati di bambini veri e incapaci di crescere come bambini normali, tra l'altro un meccanismo contenuto li distrugge dopo un certo periodo.

Into Darkness ★★
Una corsa con movimenti vincolati da un'entità esterna.

Appropriate Love ★★★★
La scienza permette di superare la morte trapiantando il cervello in un corpo ricostruito, ma mentre il corpo viene creato come conservare il cervello stesso?

The Moral Virologist ★★★
Un virologo estremamente religioso e morale che crea il virus a prova di peccatore.

Closer ★★★★
Di nuovo i gioielli come in "Learning to Be Me", qui l'aspetto trattato è la possibilità di modificare il proprio corpo (la personalità è comunque esportata all'interno dell'impianto), fino alla fusione delle personalità stesse.

Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies ★★
Poco interessante, basato sull'idea della presenza di aree sulla Terra in cui è favorito un adeguamento del pensiero a quello degli altri.

Collection of various short stories, some very interesting. A good melting between science fiction and ethical and moral themes, deal with in every story.

The Infinite Assassin ★★★★
In an infinite series of parallel worlds there is an infinite number of assassin with variable success probability: not all of them fails and not all of them are successful in their aim; then the protagonists asks himself, who am I among them?

The Hundred Light-Year Diary ★★★★
What if one's life was already written in a diary (coming from the future) available since childhood? (Interesting consideration, but don't forget the omissions).

Eugene ★★★.5
And if obtaining the perfect child was possible?

The Caress ★★.5
Everything begins with the painting "The Caress" to shift in murders and genetic manipulations.

Blood Sisters ★★★★
In a future the fight of two twin sisters against the same death disease, ethics and lies of pharmaceutical industry.

Axiomatic ★★★
About the existence of implants able to modify the user personality.

The Safe-Deposit Box ★★
About a man living each day in a different host without having an own body.

Seeing ★★
Story based on an extra-corporeal experience.

A Kidnapping ★★★.5
A kidnapping in a future where it's possible to save a copy of oneself to be activated after death.

Learning to Be Me ★★★★
An implant installed in the brain takes place after the host's death making people kind of immortal.
The implant keeps on learning the behavior of the host.

The vat ★★

The Walk ★★★.5
A killer that asks his victims to install plants to understand his ideas.

The cutie ★★★★
The cuties are replacements of real kids; they do not age as a normal children would do and a "bomb" inside them kills them after a certain time.

Into Darkness ★★
A run with movements imposed by an external entity.

Appropriate Love ★★★★
Science can defeat death transplanting the brain into a new grown body, but how to preserve the brain while the body is growing?

The Moral Virologist ★★★
An extremely religious and moral virologist creating a sin fighting virus.

Closer ★★★★
Again the jewels as in "Learning to Be Me", here the focus is about the possibility to modify the own body (the personality is stored and migrated through the jewel), until the fusion of two personalities.

Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies ★★
Not particularly interesting, based on the existence of areas where people begin to think like the other living there. ( )
  Saretta.L | Mar 31, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Greg Eganprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Denis, SylvieTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Emmer, JiříTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kotrle, PetrTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kukalis, RomasCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lustman, FrancisTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quarante-DeuxTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Valery, FrancisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vykoukalová, BlankaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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One thing never changes: when some mutant junkie on S starts shuffling reality, it's always me they send into the whirlpool to put things right.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0061052655, Paperback)

Axiomatic is a collection of Greg Egan's short stories that appeared in various science fiction magazines (mostly Interzone and Asimov's) between 1989 and 1992. Like most of Egan's work, the stories focus on science and ideas, sometimes at the expense of the writing. But although Egan may lack a certain stylistic flare, he more than makes up for it with his wonderful visions of the future. Some of the more interesting stories include "Into Darkness," the tale of a rescue worker whose territory is a runaway wormhole, and the title story "Axiomatic," which is about a man looking to find meaning in the senseless death of his wife.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:30 -0400)

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This collection of short stories ranges from bio-engineering to the wilder shores of physics and from cyberpunk to the electronic frontier. Titles include The Hundred Light Year Diary, Closer and Learning to be Me. Originally published: London: Millennium, 1995.… (more)

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