Greg Egan
Distress (1995)
Reviewed: 1997-02-12

This is the third and, if you want to trust the author, probably the last of Egan's subjective cosmology books. There is a common pattern to these novels: they start out by introducing a cyberpunkish near-future Earth with plausible extrapolations of current information technology, bioengineering running wild, throw in a detective story, then confront us with an offbeat metaphysical hypothesis, and from there rush straight into tearing down the reality of the university as we know it. Distress adheres to this template as well.

This time there is frankenscience like short-term revival of the dead, an ultra-survivalist millionaire transforming his body into an independent biosphere, or the Voluntary Autists whose wholly unexpected insights into human nature reverberate throughout the book. Are you suffering from a gender identity crisis? In Egan's future there are three sexes and seven genders to choose from, and English has acquired a complement of asex pronouns referring to persons. Large scale bioengineering is reshaping the world for better or worse. It is a shame to see how the mere backdrop of Egan's novels leaves the much hyped cyberpunk sub-genre in the dust, revealing just how shallow a babbler the widely but unjustifiably idolized William Gibson, spearhead of the cyberpunk movement, actually is.

We share the vantage point of Andrew Worth, science journalist for SeeNet, augmented with a camera tap to his optical nerve and software to match. It's 2055, and the Einstein Centenary Conference on Theories of Everything, successors to the Standard Unified Field Theory, is to be held on the living, artificial island of Stateless, a man-made atoll in the Pacific, grown by anarchists from unlicensed bioengineered coral. Worth, whose private life has just turned into jumbles, is in hot pursuit of Violet Mosala, 27-year old Nobel laureate and favorite contender for the final TOE. What was intended as a respite from covering frankenscience and yet another failed relationship turns into a deadly maelstrom involving physics and metaphysics, technolibération, Stateless's role in global politics and economy, fanatics of various persuations including several factions of Anthrocosmologists, biological weapons yielded with the precision of a scalpel, an invasion of the island by mercenaries, the explosive outbreak of a fearsome new mental disease, and the end of the universe.

Distress confirms Egan's status as the brightest star in 1990s science fiction. Tying in earlier works, there are references to "The Moat" (in Axiomatic) and "Chaff" (in Our Lady of Chernobyl and Luminous). The mood is darker than in previous novels, the barbs against well-identifiable contemporary movements are sharper, the metaphysics are possibly weaker but certainly more speculative and less consequential, and the characters are stronger. Relentlessly Egan keeps on exploring what it means to be human. Those who previously considered Egan to be a man of extraordinary ideas but mediocre writing should risk another peek.

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