I have to admit that about half way through reading Distress I thought my head was going to explode, cosmology and maths – neither are ever likely to be my specialist subjects if I make it onto Mastermind. But, it is impossible to deny that anything that makes you think about the meaning of life, the nature of existence itself can be very special. In this respect I would say that Greg Egan is writing books that are as thought provoking as works of science fiction can ever be.
In Distress Egan takes a long hard look at a number of ethical and moral issues and then one step up from there he explores the existential, describes the indescribable and makes us think about the concept of a “Theory of Everything” – the ultimate knowledge. His real talent in this novel is in convincing the reader that they can cope with the concepts at play in this novel without the need for a doctorate; he succeeds in making difficult scientific concepts accessible and indeed enjoyable.
“The most merciful thing in the world … is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Is one of my favourite Lovecraftian quotes and it is also a concept at the very heart of Egan’s Distress.
The story is set some time in the not too distant future, mid 21st century and focuses on Andrew Worth, a slightly hypochondriac journalist who covers science stories and at the start of the book is in the final stages of completing a harrowing documentary about the very extremes of “Franken-Science”. After splitting up with his girlfriend Andrew decides that he needs a break and turns down an assignment looking into an outbreak of a new psychological phenomenon known as Distress, affecting an increasing number of people (the fact that this is the title of the book immediately suggests that it is a theme that will reappear later). Instead of the Distress story he opts to cover what he hopes will be a less traumatic but equally high profile story doing a character piece on one of the worlds leading physicists, Violet Mosala, as she presents her new “Theory of Everything” or TOE at an upcoming conference. Unsurprisingly a theory that is capable of explaining the very fabric of existence is in itself somewhat controversial, especially amongst religious groups, anti-science groups or “Ignorance Cults” as well as those with their own counter theories.
The conference takes place on a renegade, man-made island called Stateless. Stateless is a place that is subject to international sanctions, resulting from its lack of respect for the technological patents which made its construction and continued existence possible. Almost instantly upon arrival on Stateless, Worth is plunged into intrigues surrounding plots to assassinate Violet Mosala. A group exists which believe that the mere act of defining a TOE and thereby explaining “everything” will in itself cause the fabric of existence to unravel – something they are willing to go to any length to stop.
Of course, without giving anything away I can reveal that Worth becomes embroiled in the assassination attempts, becomes a target himself, is kidnapped, experiences a military incursion onto Stateless and discovers what the outbreaks of Distress are really about.
Distress is fast paced, has action and intrigues a plenty. At points there are so many different plot strands that I wasn’t sure which way things were going to go and the fact that I really didn’t understand the “science” really didn’t matter – in fact I think it made the whole “suspension of belief” more plausible. As long as you don’t falter at some of the heavier going, jargon laden sections of the narrative you will enjoy this book – just go with it.
I think that Egan has managed something special, Distress is not just another “cyberpunk” retelling of another old story – there are new novel ideas and the presentation is fascinating. This is SF for the thinking man or woman; it is clever, eloquent and thought provoking. If I have a criticism it would be that there are numerous plot hooks that are not developed. The central character Andrew Worth is deeply flawed, his hypochondriac nature, refusal to have a brain scan, insistence upon following “rules” and other obsessive behaviours build an interesting character the basis of which remains unexplained.
Its not a lightweight book, but it is very good. I will certainly read more of Greg Egan and recommend Distress wholeheartedly.