The two main characters Leila and Jasim are part of a cooperative meta-civilization known as the Amalgam, and after long lives in Amalgam space have done everything they could have want to do. But before they decide to finally let life go, they want to do something grand, something audacious. They decide to penetrate the space of the Afoot, beings that supposedly exist in and around the core of the galaxy and stop every attempt of the Amalgam to explore their space.
I go right out and say that this is not the best Greg Egan has written, but it’s still good, and after such a long writing hiatus gives hope that his next novel might be up to his old stuff. What I liked about RtC was the feeling of exploration, something I would like to see in more SF, the pure joy of finding things out (especially about mysterious alien civilizations). Which is a bit of a cheat, since at the end we don’t know much more about the Afoot than at the begin of the story (Egan probably had already in mind writing a novel in the same universe).
The world-building is top-notch, the whole Amalgam felt like Egan had taken Star Trek’s notion of the Federation, thought hard about the concept, cut away the bad stuff, fused it with his own ideas and gave it a hard push toward the next millennium. The result is just cool.
If there was a part I disliked about the story it was the idea that someone would want to die after a very long life. Sure, I might be wrong, and if you lived thousands of years or even longer, that might be how people would react, but even if a lived a million years you would see me screaming and kicking brought to death, not willfully going toward it.
In Wil McCarthy’s Queendom of Sol trilogy is an interesting alternative for a society with immortality technology, the technological reincarnation of personality templates after long lives. That might be an interesting idea to look at, but just choosing death seems awfully wrong, and after reading Egan’s Border Guards I wonder what his personal opinion on this matter is.
Overall, Riding the Crocodile is a nice bit and I can’t wait until Incandescence comes out.