Greg Egan’s Amalgam is close to the most likely interstellar civilization

The other day, I did a post engaging in speculation on, assuming we don’t discover a completely new physics, what I thought an interstellar civilization might look like.  In summary:

  1. Given special relativity, travel faster than the speed of light is impossible.  This has been verified by innumerable experiments, and nothing in nature has been observed to travel faster than light, at least not yet.  There are various notions of ways around this (wormholes, Alcubierre drives, etc) but they are very speculative, requiring the existence of either exotic or cosmological amounts of energy.
  2. Even getting a decent sized spaceship to an appreciable percentage of the speed of light requires appalling amounts of energy.  This has led some scientists to conclude that humans will never explore beyond the solar system.
  3. Sending a small probe (possibly microscopic) is still extremely expensive, but conceivable.
  4. A fleet of small probes could be sent to other stars.  Once there, they could find local raw resources and bootstrap a communication and exploration infrastructure.
  5. These probes could even manufacture copies of themselves to be sent to stars further out.
  6. Over time, an interstellar communications network could be developed, allowing information from throughout the galaxy to be transmitted back to Earth, and AI (artificial intelligence) entities could be sent to the stars to explore.
  7. If mind uploading of some form or another is possible, human minds could be sent to the stars.  If mind uploading is not possible, humanity may have to content itself with the information it receives from its interstellar network.

Wyrd Smythe pointed out to me that this was more or less the vision that Greg Egan has with his Amalgam stories.  Egan is a science fiction author who has explored the concept of mind uploading extensively in his fiction, perhaps more than anyone else so far.  I’d read some of Egan’s work before, but had missed the Amalgam ones.  The Amalgam is the name of the interstellar civilization in the stories.

The Amalgam is introduced in the short story, ‘Riding the Crocodile’, which is available for free on Egan’s web site.  Egan calls the self replicating probes “spores”, which I think is a pretty descriptive label.  He describes the operation of the spores in the opening pages of another story, ‘Glory’, which is also available for free.  If the idea of this type of civilization interests you, I highly recommend both stories.  (I actually had read ‘Glory’ some years ago, but hadn’t realized the Amalgam background to it.)

IncandescenceCoverIf you find yourself with a burning desire to know more about the Aloof, the mysterious alien network in ‘Riding the Crocodile’, then you can read Egan’s novel, ‘Incandescence‘, which gives insights into them.  I should warn you that, while I mostly enjoyed ‘Incandescence’, particularly all of the fascinating ideas that it explores, I often found it tedious.  Most of the novel is about aliens working out the principles of general relativity, which it describes in what I found at times to be excessive detail.  (Egan’s stated attitude is that it’s okay for a fictional book to require you to take notes to keep up.  Not sure how many readers will agree.  I didn’t take notes, but can’t say I always kept up either.)

Egan gives insights into the Aloof, but only indirectly.  The reader has to piece them together from the clues left by the two plot threads.  Many readers finish the book in a state of confusion.  If you do read the book, and find yourself in that state, at least with regards to the Aloof, my recommendation would be to read the opening pages again, up to the point where the Aloof is described, then reread the final page.

While I think Egan’s Amalgam concept has a lot going for it, there are a couple of things about it that I find a bit dubious.  The first is that the society described is very utopic.  Everyone in the Amalgam just gets along with everyone else.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to live in such a society.  It follows a common vision in science fiction, of the post-scarcity civilization.  While it’s nice to hope for that, I’m not sure how realistic it is.  Even if your resources span the galaxy, there will still only be so much of those resources, which means economy and conflict will likely still be facts of life.

The other is that the Amalgam is an conglomeration formed from multiple alien species.  I’ve given my reasons why I think that’s unlikely.  Egan does leave room for the possibility that some or all of those other species are “uplifted” ones, species whose intelligence has been boosted by other intelligent species, which I think is more plausible.

Egan’s vision is the closest I’ve seen in science fiction to what I think is the most realistic vision of humanity reaching the stars.  Of course, even the most educated guesses of what reaching the stars will look like is probably as far off as a 15th century monk’s speculation on how humans might reach the moon.  But the Amalgam strikes me as more likely than the common Star Trek like visions.  (Not that I’m not a fan of Star Trek.)

26 thoughts on “Greg Egan’s Amalgam is close to the most likely interstellar civilization

  1. There may be new details to be considered that will make interstellar travel more difficult. There is turbulence beyond the solar mantle that are currently being felt by Voyager 1 and 2. Our common view of interstellar space is not the reality of what is beyond the sanctuary of our Sun’s protective envelope. So that means on top of the near impossible distances between stars we now have to contend with space that may be turbulent as well. It may be that turbulence is being caused by the Sun as it cuts through space which could mean that open space is not filled with violent turbulent forces but is calm like what we see in science fiction. But even then all other solar systems will have this bow wake turbulence to pass thru.

    Here is a link to the Voyager program at NASA.


    1. Thanks for the link. The term “termination shock” sounds pretty violent, but in reality it’s something the Voyager spacecraft can only detect because it has very sensitive instruments. It doesn’t really represent a barrier either into or out of the solar system.

      That isn’t to say that friction from the interstellar medium won’t be an issue. It definitely will be. If you’re traveling at 98% the speed of light, everything coming at you has enormous kinetic energy. Travel at that speed may not be possible with any known material. No one seems to know exactly at what point this friction becomes an issue. Some people fear it might be a problem as low as 10% of light speed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks I was really curious about this. And two messages hmmm. I thought one didn’t go through because I was not logged in. Can you delete the first one? It was sent by me but not connected to my account.


  2. It’s been a while since I read any sci fi, and I don’t read much fiction, but this novel sounds interesting. In fact, I might even enjoy the tedious parts (presenting ideas in a novel may be a good way to drag a non-fiction guy like me, kicking and screaming back into the loving arms of fiction). Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a fine line in fiction between educating and entertaining. I think the best novels would do well at both and ought to strive for both. I’m with you on taking notes…maybe a little bit, but at some point that becomes tedious and you feel like you might as well read nonfiction, especially if the story feels like it’s just tacked on to information. Of course, that line is different for different folks. Someone who finds the subject matter intrinsically interesting might be fine with taking notes and might find the story line fun. (I feel this way about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which I suspect might be easier to read than Egan’s book.) But wouldn’t it be more masterful to entice someone who’s not interested in the subject to become interested? I think this is possible without dumbing things down for those who already know a great deal about the subject. It’s very hard, but it’s possible.


    1. I totally agree. The best science fiction tells a compelling story and manages to expose you to a few new interesting ideas. There are authors who write for general readership, enticing people into the genre. They do have to make compromises to get there, but they have pretty large audiences as a result. People like John Scalzi and Jack McDevitt come to mind.

      That’s not Egan’s style. It’s not that he explores concepts many people might struggle with (although he does), but that he considers a story about aliens figuring out the laws of physics to be compelling. It is moderately compelling, but not as compelling as a story of someone trying to survive a war.

      That said, I find his short fiction a lot easier to read than the novels.


      1. “It’s not that he explores concepts many people might struggle with (although he does), but that he considers a story about aliens figuring out the laws of physics to be compelling.”

        What you’re saying about Egan’s novel is what I gathered from the criticism he defends himself against. I wondered whether Egan was being, well, defensive.

        Something that struck me just as I was falling asleep the other night was something in Colin Wilson’s book, “The Craft of the Novel”. He says something about how you must have some sort of tangible struggle or conflict to be overcome. By this he meant something very common and boring on the surface level: “Will x survive?” “Will X find love?” etc. You can fold in all sorts of great themes and deep stuff, but you can’t have JUST the deep stuff. It’s something writers don’t want to admit a lot of times because they feel it’s not important. And maybe it’s not the thing people will discuss, it’s not what makes a novel great or memorable, but it’s what keeps the reader going.


        1. To be fair to Egan, he does usually have an overriding question in his stories. In ‘Riding the Crocodile’, it’s the mystery of the Aloof. (Although the real purpose of the story is to explore the Amalgam society.) In ‘Glory’, it’s the nature of the ultimate mathematical formula discovered by an extinct alien race. In ‘Incandescence’, it’s both the mystery of the Aloof and the nature of the world the aliens live in.

          The problem for Egan, is that a lot of readers don’t find these compelling. But when all your characters are either aliens or uploaded software entities, it can be hard to make human concerns the center of the story. (Though not impossible. Some SF authors do find a way to make it work, although usually by compromising on some of the concepts.)


          1. There has long been, within SF, a sub-genre of really hard, really techy stories (and they do work much better in shorter form). George O. Smith wrote the Venus Equilateral stories that assume the reader has some knowledge of, and interest in, electronic radio tubes (remember those?) and electronics in general.

            There’s an argument about how accessible art should be. Does every book have to work for every possible reader, or can a writer write for a select audience. Egan certainly does, and I’m totally in that audience! 😀


          2. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to accessibility, except in regards to how large an audience you want. Egan is going to write what he’s going to write, and if only a certain audience niche finds it interesting, so be it. If Egan did start compromising to get a wider audience, that niche would almost certainly be disappointed.


          3. Yeah, agreed! If one is willing to write for a small (and very appreciative!) audience, there’s not only nothing wrong with that, I’d say it’s pretty wonderful (for the audience, anyway).

            I would definitely be disappointed if he “sold out.”

            Liked by 1 person

          4. I haven’t read Egan, so I really have no opinion of his work. I might have to check him out to see how he deals with these issues.

            I see your point about how it might be difficult to make uploaded software entities compelling, but as you say, definitely possible.

            Also, there’s something to be said for knowing your audience. He doesn’t seem to care whether or not he’s writing for a narrow audience (and narrow within his genre). It may very well be that those who like him appreciate that he speaks directly to their interests.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, obviously I’m a big Greg Egan fan, and I love his work. I did find Incandescence compelling. How they came upon General Relativity from a completely different angle was fascinating to me. Also, I learned something about orbital mechanics from that book. I hadn’t realized about gravity gradients in an orbiting fixed object.

    There’s the scene in Gravity where Clooney is lost. A question I asked then is why he “fell” away once she’d brought him to a stop and killed his momentum. While Gravity is certainly flawed, that may not be one of its flaws. They might have been far enough away from the center of gravity to feel a noticeable gravity gradient. I wouldn’t haven’t known about that if not for Incandescence!

    I’m a total science geek, but I love how Egan explores basic physics. He has a book I have yet to read that features a universe where Special Relativity works backwards. The faster you go, the faster your clock seems to tick. The conflict involves a civilization that’s realized it’s sun will blow in X period of years. They send off a science team in a relativistic ship to give them time to develop a solution. The traveling scientists have potentially hundreds or thousands of years available while only decades pass on the planet.

    One of my main things with books is: Take me somewhere new! Egan really does that for me.


    1. Absolutely! I love how far Egan’s imagination goes. I found the aliens and their habitat very compelling. But for me, all the detail was something that had to be endured for the sake of the overall story. I’m just not detail oriented enough to appreciate it for its own sake. For example, I completely missed the gradient thing because I was probably glazed over when it was demonstrated.


      1. Yeah, I understand. I’m a hardware and software guy — an über-geek — so I love the detail so long as it’s not BS or wildly inaccurate. I think I’ve said this before, but some of my very early science training came from SF. So sometimes it’s more than just interesting, it’s educational!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Actually, now that I think about it, I did catch the gradient thing, but just instantly mapped it into my understanding of the gravitational turbulence around a black hole, and took that as a clue to their location.

      Regarding ‘Gravity’, unless I’m still missing something (which is very possible) I don’t think the gravity gradients around Earth would be anywhere intense enough to explain George Clooney being pulled away once his motion had been arrested.


      1. It’s not about ‘around Earth’ though, it’s about being off-center in an orbiting body. I think maybe you did miss the gravity gradient thing — that may have made their pursuit of a gravity theory more tedious since the gradient of their own orbiting body was an instrumental part of that.

        In a rigid orbiting structure, the further you get from the center (in certain directions), the more you’re no longer in a correct orbit. Only the center of gravity of the structure is in the actual orbit the altitude and velocity demand.

        In particular, when you move away from center on a line to the center of your orbit you feel a force increasingly pushing you away from your center of orbit. If you move up and down a line perpendicular to that first line and the tangent line of orbit, you feel a force pulling you back towards your center of orbit. IIRC, there isn’t a gradient along the line of orbit.

        This gradient is strictly a feature of being in orbit — not related to the black hole. It accounts for the tides on Earth. The sides of the Earth in line with the Moon feel that force away from center. That’s why there are tides on the other side of the Earth. (I always used to wonder why the water on the opposite side bulged away from things. That’s why.)

        All that said, how far off center you need to be to feel appreciable force, I don’t know. Or if Clooney and Bullock were in the right direction to feel the force away from center. That’s strongest along the line that intersects both centers. It just struck me as funny that maybe that part of the movie wasn’t BS, or at least had some basis for what otherwise seems a huge and important error.


        1. You actually just explained something I was confused about from the book (again probably from my inability to stay focused in the long explanations), notably why weight didn’t follow centrifugal forces in the Splinter. Thank you!

          I still wonder though if the forces would be that strong around a much shallower gravity well. In any case, given all the liberties they took with orbital mechanics in ‘Gravity’, I’d be surprised if the Clooney situation reflected any kind of deep understanding along those lines.

          Liked by 1 person

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