The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred
by Greg Egan
Cover Artist: Dominic Harman
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Press ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596067912
Date: 01 November 2016
Hard science fiction is sometimes contrasted with science fiction that is socially conscious or progressive. No one shows the artificiality of these distinctions better than Greg Egan. His latest novella, The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred is a perfect example of why. He combines a clear mastery of the tools of hard science fiction with a probing look at how discrimination and strife can arise from nothing in a prosperous society.
The story jumps back and forth between a thread that follows Anna, the new port director on Ceres, and a thread that takes place years earlier on Vesta, one of the largest rocky bodies in the asteroids belt. In Anna's story, we learn that refuges from a bitter internal conflict on Vesta have taken to stowing away on shipments of rock from Vesta to Ceres, seeking asylum and a new life on Ceres. Meanwhile, the earlier thread follows Camille and shows us the origin of this crisis, as the peaceful and egalitarian Vestan society is threatened by a movement that seeks to turn the descendant of one of the founding families of Vesta into second class citizens, because their ancestors provided intellectual property rather than physical resources to support the colonization effort. Anna is faced with growing opposition from Vesta to Ceres' willingness to take in the refuges, while in the earlier story thread Camille faces ever greater persecution on Vesta for her heritage.
What anchors this story is Egan's careful depiction of how a society that feels much like ours could tear itself apart over a difference they essentially create out of whole cloth. There is no history of tension on Vesta, and no great crisis. Greed and fear feed a cycle of distrust and retaliation, the terrible results of which we see in Anna's story. Greg Egan has worked to aid asylum seekers in his native Australia, and his passion and knowledge of the issue come through in this story. It also feels very timely, with many of us wondering if the rights and institutions we rely on are as secure and immune to challenge as we had assumed they were.
My one complaint is that I wanted to hear more of Camille's story. There remains a great gap between where her story leaves off and Anna's begins, and while it is possible to guess at how the situation degrades, I would love to see it explored in more detail. Also, those used to Egan exploring truly mind-bending new ideas may be disappointed. The hard SF elements will be familiar to most science fiction fans. Still, while the hard SF elements are a bit more in the background here than in some of his stories, it has all of his skill at character and world building. This a powerful novella with a clear message for us today.