Australian novelist Greg Egan has delivered some mind blowing sci fi novels. The Four Thousand The Eight Hundred does not have the inventive scope of some of these works. Being a novella, Egan doesn’t have the room to develop his universe too deeply. But by relying on some familiar science fiction settings and universal ideas as a base, Egan still manages to deliver a fair punch in a small space.
People are fleeing Vesta. Strapping themselves to giant stone blocks and putting themselves in stasis to drift through space over a three year trip to Ceres, hitching a ride illegally on a trade that swaps the stone for ice. These refugees are fleeing a regime in which they are treated as second class citizens. They are welcomed by Ceres, a move that creates some tension with Vesta where they are considered to be criminals.
There are no big or new scifi ideas in this novella, Egan takes shortcuts to create a complete and believable but contained corner of the solar system. For example, dwarf planet and asteroid belt mining concerns have a long history in science fiction. But Egan uses these science fiction tropes to explore elements of the human condition. He does this particularly through characters who are quickly but effectively drawn. And the stakes feel real when the situation quickly ramps up to an impossible moral choice.
The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred is a thinly veiled allegory of current global events – in particular, state-sponsored racism, the resistance to such a regime and the resultant movement of people across borders. Egan effectively uses the relative safety of a science-fiction sandbox to give readers the opportunity to reflect on events playing out around the world right now.
This review first appeared in Aurealis #98, Australian science fiction and fantasy magazine, www.aurealis.com.au.