Permutation City by Greg Egan
I’ve refrained from reviewing fiction on the blog for two reasons: first, I don’t want to have to issue spoiler alerts for the books I want to talk about, and second out of a (possibly misplaced) sense of professional curtesy; as a writer who wants to be published professionally, I don’t want to be seen as being overly critical of those whose ranks I wish to join.
I’m breaking my self-imposed rule now because I realized there’s a way to talk about the fiction I read without indulging in spoilers or going too negative. Instead of discussing the overall quality of the book, like a normal reviewer, I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned from it about the art of writing. Like studying Frank Lloyd Wright buildings for architects, or replicating how Van Gogh made his own colors for painters, I think each book, each short story I read can teach me about the writing craft.
Take Permutation City, a book I finished recently. It’s an older science fiction work - published in 1994 - recommended by Jo Walton in her What Makes This Book So Great? compendium of fantasy and sci-fi reviews. What did it teach me?
It supports the idea that the real strength of the novel (as opposed to film or tv) is the ability to completely describe a character’s thoughts and dreams in addition to their actions. Novels can take you deep inside someone else’s head, something that tv and film can’t really do. It’s something Egan proves a master at, using it to make what on film would be just a character staring at some shapes moving on a screen into some of the most compelling parts of the story. In contrast, the more traditional “action” parts of the story aren’t as interesting or exciting.
It offers a rebuttal to my (recent) idea that often the details of something don’t matter, that character and plot can carry you through even when you’ve got the science (or the law, or the traditions) wrong. I’ve been using this idea to explain why I still enjoy shows that have dodgy physics or loose legal systems (Arrow, Forever).
But Permutation City has a huge crack running through the middle of the narrative, a place where it gets the details so wrong that the only way the plot can proceed is if you take a leap of faith along with the author, disregarding a lot of what we know about the physical world and how computers work. It’s a leap of faith I couldn’t make, and it divides the book into a well-detailed, well-thought-through portrait of the mid-21st century and a second half that, for me, might as well have been a discussion of angels dancing on the head of a pin.
Perhaps if the novel had built that leap of faith in from the beginning, I might not have felt the fracture? In any case, I’m taking it as a warning, a sign that sometimes getting the details wrong (or perhaps poor timing of certain details?) robs well-drawn characters and intricate plots of their power.