(1995/ 2008) Greg Egan, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 424 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-8173-4
Gollancz have re-released Greg Egan's 1995 novel Distress as part of his complete backlist reprint to coincide with the publication of his 2008 novel Incandescence and done so with a rather decently themed list livery. So for what it is worth this is now the time to go out and stock up on Egan's half dozen or so novels and a couple of collections of shorts.
Distress itself is the story of a future (vid) journalist who gets fed up with working on biotechnology stories whose ethics can be a bit dodgy. So he decides to switch to fundamental physics and that of TOEs (theory's of everything). In doing so he leaves behind work including that on 'Distress': a new, seemingly non-pathogenic, disease syndrome that causes its sufferers to experience severe melancholy sometimes to the point of suicide.
Our journalist is to base his science story around a symposium of TOE physicists that is taking place on an artificial, bio-engineered island whose citizens do not respect bio-patents and so are regarded as a semi-outlaw state. However he soon discovers that not only are theories-of-everything fascinating for physicists and popular science, but they also attract their share of geeks, wacky adherents, quasi-religious nuts etc. All well and good and some of these might add some grist to our journalist's mill. However when some physicists start to go missing and one, Violet Mosala, due to present a breakthrough paper, comes under threat. Clearly something serious is afoot. Could it be that in unravelling the theory of everything the Universe itself might be affected? If so what would be the consequences?
This is all heady stuff with which Greg Egan is clearly at home. Yes, there is some make-believe physics but there is also an underpinning of real physics to give the story credibility (as there is with all good SF which of course at the end of the day is 'fiction' with a dash of genuine 'science'). Furthermore a good deal of the novel's philosophical discussion as to the importance of TOEs is applicable to real-life physics such as the work relating to super-colliders. Perhaps the most significant relevance relates to the 'Cosmological Anthropic Principle' which Barrow and Tipler popularised (among science polymaths at any rate) back in the 1980s. Now you do not have to have read Barrow and Tipler to enjoy Distress but if you have (and understand the implications and limitations of that appraisal) then it adds a significant dimension to enjoying the novel. Having said that, if you have not then do not worry as the novel carries itself very well. All you need to really know is that humans need the Universe in which to exist and that humans are capable of elucidating some aspects of the Universe. Combine this with observation having some sort of effect on the observed and you can begin to see certain possibilities.
How does Distress compare to other Egan novels? Well a very critical reader of Egan's oeuvre, though praising his ultra-hard SF, might well complain about many of his characters' cardboard nature. Now Egan is not alone of SF authors to have such criticism levelled at them and here the standard counter is that the essence of SF lies more in 'sense of wonder' and ideas, whereas emotion and character as well as descriptive prose tend to underpin mundane (non-SF) fiction and what is called 'literature'. (Though of course there are SF authors who do all these.) Now I am not going to re-cap this old chestnut here, but I do mention it because this is one of Egan's novels where his protagonist has a far more rounded character. This, and that it is set in the not too distant future, may make this more accessible to non-SF readers though these will still need to have an appreciation of science if they are to make it through to the book's end. However for hard SF buffs and scientists into SF Distress will certainly hit many of the right buttons and for them this novel is most certainly recommended. Greg Egan is a champion at demonstrating that fiction relating to science, as well as science and technological speculation, is one of the most imaginative of human exercises.
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