After Hours

Weekend reading: Teranesia

A science fiction book with character? It's not the norm, but the focus on character works like a charm in this genetics puzzler by Greg Egan.


You've been staring at your monitor too long. Relax and curl up with a book unrelated to IT, end users, or networks. Weekend Reading has your review.


By Greg EganHarper Prism, published 11/1999295 pp., hardcoverISBN: 0-06-105092-XPrice: $16.80 at fatbrain.com .



Australian author Greg Egan’s Teranesia is not your typical science fiction novel. Instead of presenting epic explorations of strange new worlds, the book recounts the very personal and emotional—but not sentimental—journey of Prabir Suresh.

In the year 2010, nine-year-old Prabir lives on a tiny, uninhabited Indonesian island—an island he names Teranesia. His parents are biologists studying a strange genetic mutation in the area’s butterflies. But then civil war breaks out across Indonesia, a tragic accident kills Prabir’s parents, and the boy flees the island with his baby sister, Madhusree.

Almost 20 years later, more strange mutations begin appearing in Indonesian plants and animals. The most puzzling aspect of the phenomenon is that the mutations seem very efficient and functional—they might actually be creating improvements to the species.

Madhusree has become a biology student, and she joins an expedition to explore the islands. Prabir, unable to relinquish his role as his sister’s protector, follows her and eventually teams up with a freelance scientist, Martha Grant, who also is trying to solve the evolutionary mystery. She starts to uncover the secret of Teranesia, but Prabir becomes infected with the gene that causes the mutations. Ultimately, he must turn to Madhusree for help; now she must save him.

Tech talk
Plausible technologies appear in small but important roles throughout the novel. In one scene, Egan uses dark humor to depict the way humans interact with information appliances. Prabir’s outlook on life has become so bleak he slits his wrist, but he quickly decides to abort the suicide attempt and calls on his voice-activated TV/Web-browser-like device to find information for him:

“He knelt in front of the TV. ‘Search: emergency first aid.’

“The entire screen was filled instantly with tiny icons; there must have been thirty thousand of them. It looked like a garden of mutated red crosses...

“‘No sacred, no mystic, no spiritual.’ The garden thinned visibly, ‘No alternative. No holistic...No yin, no yang, no karma. No nurturing, no nourishing, no numinous...’

“The TV remarked smugly, ‘Your filtering strategy is redundant,’ and displayed a Venn diagram to prove its point. The first three words he’d excluded had eliminated about a quarter of the icons, but after that he’d just been re-lassoing various subsets of the New Age charlatans he’d already tossed out.”

Prabir finally gets the help he needs by asking the television to send an ambulance.

The recommendation
Although the technologies and the scientific mystery will hold your interest, the most engaging part of Teranesia is its exploration of how one man struggles with his past—how he learns to deal with his sense of responsibility for his sister, his love for his parents, and his guilt over his failings, both real and imagined.

The ending of the novel seems a bit abrupt, but I recommend Teranesia for science fiction fans who are tired of SF cliches and appreciate an emphasis on character.

Thomas Pack is a freelance technology writer.

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