Greg Egan is one of the hard sci-fi authors I always enjoy reading, and picking one of his stories to study was something I intended to do for a while. I believe that taking a good look at the work of authors you love as well as those you aren’t familiar with is beneficial in learning—through reading—to become a better writer.
The short story I chose isn’t something published in the mainstream, but is still a great piece of writing. I’m referring to In The Ruins, which is available to read on Egan’s (weird) website.
I recommend first reading the short story before continuing here so that your mind can be blown and your brain itching like someone got in there (as mine was when I first read it). Reading it will also put a lot of the points I make into context and, in this way, help with understanding this particular writing device of inserting thoughts into the reader’s mind.
Reading it beforehand isn’t compulsory, however, and you’re welcome to follow along without doing so. As I said, I recommend it. If you do wish to read it first, please note that comprehending the science isn’t necessary so don’t worry about it. I didn’t entirely understand some of it, either.
In the short story In The Ruins Egan uses knowledge as the focus of the reader’s attention, sending them through a problem that gets solved as it leads the reader along a journey with the main character. And the background of the story is that of a satirical and dystopic look at a future world—one of anti-intellectualism.
“Dance, rap or stand-up?” Emma asked the slender girl in front of her in the queue. It was a joke: dance, obviously.
“Physics,” the girl replied.
“Er—” Emma gestured at the sign on the door. “Obviously. But what mode?”
At first it may seem that the background critique on contemporary society Egan delivers is the inception I’m referring to, but the obvious focus can just as well be used for the incepting thought as anything obscure or subtle.
Was the critique the inception of thought, or was it the knowledge?
“You think this has no applications?” Ghada was amused. “It might strike you that way, but it’s not the case. Describing the figure that these velocities form is one route to a deeper understanding of any inverse-square force — including the electrostatic force in an atom. With a bit more work, this problem offers a short cut to the energy levels of hydrogen…”
Interestingly, Egan uses info-dumping in the dialogue to distract from the obvious focus of the knowledge. Of course, with his choice of knowledge—math and physics—many readers may be immune to the power of suggestion employed in this piece, and probably not follow the story entirely. This will instead make the social critique of the background stronger than it would be if the focus remained with the knowledge. In this case, the inception comes in through the humour Egan uses to deliver the critique of a not-all-that-far-fetched possible future.
Glory days? Emma was indignant. “You do know that twenty million people live-streamed the makeover episode of American Poopy-head?”
“Yeah, that sums it up.” Ghada laughed sadly. “The only way for a scientist to be halfway palatable in your culture now is through a kind of ritual self-abasement…”
As with Egan’s short story, info-dumps can work if they’re executed well. In The Ruins seems to use them deliberately for the purpose of distraction and inception. The inception in this case is to get the reader to focus on the math as the characters explore it and eventually reach a point in which the main character’s arc develops and resolves.
Through the distraction and immersion, the reader unknowingly learns something new—math and physics—as we follow along to the climax as resolution. The use of visuals for the math also caters to the immersion and allows the reader to follow the incepting device with ease.
The inception device isn’t exclusive or unique to science fiction and can be found in many genres, and it can be delivered in varying degrees like in Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild. How a writer incepts an idea into someone’s mind is generally their own preference. Some use red herrings while others use intricate sub-plots that tie together—better analysed as the Hansel and Gretel move in leaving breadcrumbs everywhere.
Inception in inception, or just a suggestion? Either works if the writer can get into the heads of readers and tickle their brains while delivering a satisfying and complete story. The point of the inception device is to further ensure the story is memorable.
After all, a reader who remembers is one who will return.
What did you take away from the story? Was the inception effective, and if not, do you think it could have been executed better? If you know of other examples of this device employed well, share it in the comments. I’d love to see more of it and I’m always up for reading great stories.