Distress

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distress.jpg

Greg Egan

GENRES:
Hard Sci-Fi

SUMMARY:
Distress tells the story of three physicists racing to formulate a unified Theory of Everything (TOE), seen through the video camera eyes of a science journalist, in events set on a bio-engineered coral island in the Pacific. The repurcussions of the understanding a TOE will bring humanity are hotly contested by the physicists, the ignorance cults, and the shadowy anthro-cosmologists. Assassinations, kidnappings, techno-liberation agendas and the problems faced by a boycotted anarcho-syndicalist nation help propel the plot. All the while, the mystery illness of the title is taking an increasing hold on the planet’s population with no apparent mechanism of infection and catastrophic results for its victims.

RESPONSE
This being my fifth Greg Egan read, I expect the science fiction machinery that helps flesh out the story, but it's no less inspiring than in previous books, as the author has a sound capacity to predict technology that is both exciting and plausible in the time frames in hand (fifty years at the time I read “Distress”). This may be a limiting factor to the shelf life of Greg Egan’s near-future books, as the author’s projected future becomes our past, and increasing disjuncts between the prediction and the reality become apparent.*

Anthrocosmology, the idea that we write the universe into existence through our observations of it, is a novel idea, and I cannot find reference to it that predates publication of the novel. If it is entirely Greg Egan’s creation, it ranks among his most imaginative moments, no small feat. Again, I am glad this author has never sought to start a cult, as his ability to weave a convincing and seductive theology would show up other holy texts as the weakly mapped out fairy stories they are.

The exposition that sets the scene for this book was excellent. By writing in the first person and by making the central character a science journalist, Greg Egan allowed the documentary work to lead the reader through concepts gthat otherwise would have been clumsy dialogue if discussed by the characters.

There were some moments which seemed too pat to be taken seriously, taking on a James Bond surreality, but I couldn’t see how I would have handled them differently and still made a compelling read of it, just one of the reasons why I am reading and not writing science fiction. The threads of the story resolve in a climax, something I’ve not encountered in Greg Egan’s works before. As with the first person narrative, this was an interesting facet of a book that is not my favourite by this author, but still sits miles ahead of other books on my list of things to read a second time. Key passages dealing with sexual identity, the merits of science over other mechanisms of investigation, and the laziness of questioning a person's humanity to try to win an argument have been marked for regular reference and have served me well on two occasions already.

My relationship with this book got off to a shaky start. Reading the first chapter on a train, late on a wintry night, full of caffeine and in great need of sleep, I found that the confronting opening sequence, perhaps combined with the music I was listening to, got me hyperventilating. My lips grew numb, my hearing became tinny. Without a paper bag to breathe into, I leant against the window and tried to get my respiration under control. I also tried to line up the sentence, “I have hyperventilated because I got too involved in an upsetting sequence in this book and think I am about to faint,” so I could alert fellow passengers to my imminent loss of consciousness, feeling slightly sick that such a stupid thing was about to happen, that such a ridiculous sentence needed to be said, and that I needed to piece the stupid sentence together like words were Lego blocks. I never got the words out and, judging by the jump in the music, lost about thirty seconds, face down on my train seat.** Scary stuff for someone who has never fainted before. My mother-in-law, seated in an armchair and with help close at hand, test piloted her own reading and found the descriptions in the first chapter too clinically medical to have a similar effect. However, please heed my advice, read the first chapter while sitting down, as the guy can write. While it can be a heady ride, it’s not worth a concussion.

* George Orwell’s “1984” survived the passing of its title year without losing any of its impact on me, and I still enjoy “Thunderbirds” in spite of so little of that vision having come to pass, so perhaps I am more forgiving of these disjuncts than I realise.

** Neurological tests showed up nothing unusual, so I blame the book. And perhaps also “The Drowning Man,” by The Cure.

Reviewed by Worldslaziestbusker