I'm glad I made Teranesia the second book of Greg Egan's I read. Doing so gave me the best opportunity to see his development as a storyteller, and I can now count myself among Egan's ardent admirers. Teranesia has the narrative accessibility and involving characters I thought Permutation City lacked, without relinquishing an iota of Egan's trademarked devotion to cutting-edge scientific speculation. Marred only by an ending so abrupt (and downbeat) that it'll give you whiplash, this is one of the more absorbing hard science novels I've read recently.
The novel opens in the very near future on the titular island, a barely distinguishable rock nestled among the archipelagos of Indonesia. Teranesia is home to Rajendra Suresh and his wife Radha, both scientists studying inexplicable genetic anomalies in the island's local butterfly population, anomalies so great they indicate that these particular butterflies might belong to an undiscovered phylum. When civil war in the islands leads to tragedy at home, the couple's children, Prabir and his baby sister Madhusree, are forced to escape Teranesia on their own. They end up in a refugee camp in Australia, where they are soon claimed by an aunt living in Canada.
Years later, as adults, Madhusree, now a budding biologist herself, informs Prabir of her intentions to return to Teranesia as part of a university expedition. Even more bizarre new species have been discovered there. Madhusree sees this not only as an opportunity to give her education and career a boost, but, personally, to come to terms with their parents' deaths and gain a little closure thereby. (More than anything, it's a chance to complete their parents' work.) Prabir is immediately overcome both by personal guilt and a sense of protectiveness. Indonesia is, after all, still very dangerous territory. After much soul-searching (including an abortive suicide attempt), Prabir pulls himself together and decides to follow his sister. Returning to Teranesia, they unearth a real scientific mystery.
Though I cannot — as I'm no scientist — give Egan's microbiology a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, I can say that, dramatically, he pulls off the mystery of what's happening on Teranesia most grippingly. It's also commendable that Egan is willing to give his thriller an openly gay protagonist without feeling as if he has to make some kind of statement by doing so. The strength of Egan's characterization lies in the inner turmoil Prabir has had to endure for well-nigh twenty years in the aftermath of childhood horrors. And I personally get a big kick whenever I see an author openly confronting and ridiculing irrationalism in any form, whether it happens to be socially acceptable irrationalism (in the form of traditional religions) or your garden variety fringe kookiness. The most relevant and sobering social commentary Egan makes throughout Teranesia concerns the rising tide of superstition, anti-science, and anti-intellectualism poisoning human culture the world over. It probably isn't so risky for Egan, whose readership consists most prominently of hard-science mavens anyway. But it's the kind of social criticism that just needs to see print more often, period.
Egan only stumbles in the book's final chapters, as the mystery takes a potentially tragic turn and the story, which has been speeding along in fifth gear for most of its length (short of Crichton, you don't usually see SF this fast-paced), suddenly slams on the brakes for its finale. Egan actually should have taken his time here, offering a clearer scientific explanation for the book's resolution and allowing for better closure where characters' relationships were concerned. But apart from this fumble, Teranesia is — dare I say it? — downright infectious.