Fiction Reviews


Distress

(1995) Greg Egan, Millenium, ?.99, hrdbk, 343pp, ISBN 1 85798 286 X

The year is 2055. Andrew Worth, science journalist, is reporting on a physics conference from the anarchistic, artificially grown island of Stateless where the physicist, Violet Mosala, is about to unveil a Theory of Everything.

Egan adopts a thriller style - more successfully than in his earlier novels - to describe the antics of various groups as they try to support or destroy Mosala and her theory. As usual, the plot shows us various plausible extrapolations of technology - the biotech that built the island, intelligent agents, engineered viruses - but the narrative drive of the story comes from the working out in the plot of the arguments over the meaning of a Theory of Everything. Again as usual, Egan opts for the most radical possible option as the truth: that the theory literally creates the universe.

The whole enterprise is held together with a lot more skill than in Quarantine or Permutation City, but this only seems to highlight a fundamental problem with doing concept stories at novel length. Egan seems to want to present his theory as a (dramatised) version of 'how it really is', but the clash between the 'big idea' and the realistic detail needed to sustain a story of this length pull in opposite directions, leading to a feeling that the idea is just a conceit to give the novel a big finish, and need not be true, or even nearly true. This also explains why he gets away with it more successfully in his short stories: impressionistic detail tends to take the place of realism, so there is less to distract the reader from the idea behind the story.

Nonetheless, if you can keep yourself from thinking about these problems, this is a fascinating book and a brilliant attempt to keep SF up with the cutting edge of science.

Matt Freestone


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