by Greg Egan
Phoenix, ISBN 1-85799-484-1, 1996 (1995c), 342pp, L5.99
A book review by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 1997 Evelyn C. Leeper
[This has just been released in the United States as well.]
As usual, Egan packs a lot of ideas into a single novel. Our protagonist, Andrew Worth, is a 21st century science journalist who seems to concentrate on the sensational. But rather than doing a story on Distress (a new mental disease in which the patients display, not surprisingly, extreme distress), he decides to cover a conference at which leading scientists will present their competing Theories of Everything. This conference is being held on a bio-engineered renegade island called Stateless. That's already five science fiction ideas, and we haven't even gotten to the main part of the book.
Egan also has Violet Mosala, a brilliant African physicist who serves as both the apparent target of assassins and a mouthpiece for some decidedly "politically incorrect" ideas. I do not mean this negatively. When asked, "It seems to me that your whole approach to these issues reflects a male, Western, reductionist, left- brained mode of thought. How can you possibly reconcile this with your struggle as an African woman against cultural imperialism?" Mosala replies, "I have no interest in squandering the most powerful intellectual tools I possess, because of some quaint misconception that they're the property of any particular people: male, Western, or otherwise."
Although the interplay of politics and science is part of what makes this book fascinating, the somewhat straightforward political intrigue centering around Stateless does seem like piling Ossa on Pelion. Everything else ties together reasonably well, but that seems somewhat detached. The core of this book is similar to the core of many of Egan's other works (including his Hugo-nominated "Luminous," and his latest, "Reasons for Feeling Cheerful," which is already on my Hugo list for next year): does knowing or understanding something, whether a single phenomenon or the whole universe, change it, or our reaction to it? Does a "law" exist before it's understood? To what extent do our perceptions and understandings control the universe?
Not being a physicist, I can't judge the physics, but there are a couple of small errors I did note. There are no pyramids in the Valley of the Kings and at one point someone is described as a "loose canon."
This is another great Egan novel. Yes, I know that's redundant, but I want to make sure you realize this is a very positive recommendation. I'm sure there's a good reason that it's taken two years to get this book published in the United States; I just can't imagine what it is.
%T Distress %A Greg Egan %C London %D 1995 %I Phoenix %O paperback, L5.99  %G ISBN 1-85799-484-1 %P 342pp
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