Orion, 343 pages

Kathleen Ann Goonan
by Greg Egan

This review first appeared in the Science Fiction Eye. It may differ slightly from Steve Brown's edited version.


The road of knowledge is hard, for knowledge can strip away comforting but wholly imagined emotional crutches, leaving those who take that path with no foundation, and nothing with which to replace lost beliefs. Existentialism in its purest form is usually a bleak philosophical stratum to inhabit, but in Egan's tremendous new novel, DISTRESS, humanity traverses that harrowing darkness and discovers an entirely new state on the other side.

This is his first truly universal novel, a novel that takes "everything" into account. He has changed empiric reality before in novels, twice; in fact. But both of those books skim the ridgeline between a relentlessly realized pure idea and fully realized characters; at times, the humanity of the characters seems secondary to each almost mathematically pursued and supported axiom Egan is trying to prove, or at least, explore. Egan excels at taking the reader to the utter extreme of whatever star to which he's hitched his thought.

DISTRESS is no exception, but here, in contrast to QUARANTINE and PERMUTATION CITY, which narrowly focussed on one person's fate or thoughts (despite the fact that each scenario did involve and affect "everyone") he has truly included all humanity and used the energy of that inclusion to bring this novel to a transcendent level.

The history of the human race is mired in atrocities committed in the name of one belief or other--religion, nationality--all based on the defense of a particular vision of reality. None of us is free of this, but Egan makes us believe that the possibility exists and that, if it were truly and deeply realized, its realization would liberate humanity. Lennon's elegiac "Imagine" is a hymn of heresy to any number of people whose entire reality revolves around powerful belief systems which arise from imperative biological survival mechanisms rather than rational thought. In the past several hundred years, more and more of the underpinnings of ancient beliefs about reality have been dealt serious blows. These blows are truly frightening, when taken to their inexorable limits--the idea of a supra-human power which governs and watches, rewards and punishes must be forsaken. Instead we are the result, but not the endpoint, of purely physical forces which we do not understand in full.

But what if everyone's vision became the same? And, furthermore, what if that vision, that which everyone would realize as true, was based on the most fundamental reality possible, a deep understanding of the nature and history of matter, an understanding which is linked to acceptance of our own inescapable material being? In DISTRESS, Egan postulates that such a realization would inevitably arise should we--even only one among us--could understand whatever the Theory of Everything actually is.

DISTRESS opens with a deeply horrendous scene--the temporary resurrection of a murder victim, using the latest technology, in order to record a first-person verbal description of the perpetrator. The victim is told that he will be fine, but midway he realizes that he is, actually, "dead," and that when the drugs run their course their action will complete his demise. Andrew Worth is recording it for his latest documentary, Junk DNA, via his expensively reconstructed innards, for which he is in hoc to the bank--and on which he is deeply dependent in every possible way. Those who revel in Egan's technical vision of the future will not be disappointed. Witness is back, and Andrew constantly invokes Sysyphus, an on-board net-linked supercomputer with an attitude which is constantly updated, with which he can set up any number of simultaneous searches and converse with.

Gina, his latest partner after a series of romantic failures, openly scorns his lack of scruples in pursuing stories, and he responds to her presence in his life with carefully formulated and numbered rules distilled from previous relationships. He is trying very hard--very rationally--to make it work. For Junk DNA, he has interviewed, tellingly, a man who has the wealth to create his own reproducible artificial DNA--in effect, becoming the father of an entire new race, if it works. He has also interviewed a man who is autistic, but not profoundly so, his public behavior enhanced by several bio-programs. This man has founded an organization for the preservation, without the medical intervention available to "normalize" them, of autists such as himself, in the belief that they have not lost their humanity, but gained it. His reasoning is that all people are truly alone, but that false biological imperatives which have evolved for societal and reproductive reasons have fostered the powerful illusion of the possibility of true intimacy. He sees this as not only dreadfully dishonest, but crippling and dangerous, the root of tribalism and war, and wishes that even "normal" humans would choose to become Voluntary Autists.

Worth, exhausted by Junk DNA and longing to spend time with Gina, turns down the opportunity to cover Distress, the strange new anxiety plague, proffered by SeeNet--a plum assignment, but one sure to be fraught with more intense emotionality. Instead he steals a project from a fellow journalist, a woman who has done months of groundwork on a subject he knows nothing about--an upcoming international conference on the Theory of Everything, TOE, to be held in Stateless, an anarchic and wonderfully portrayed society which lives on an artificial coral island grown in the ocean. He thinks this will be an undemanding project which will allow him to relax.

Of course, it is not.

Gina breaks up with him on the eve of his departure, citing his inability to relate to her, his apparent coolness, and he arrives in Stateless an emotional and physical wreck.

Stateless is a powerful fictional realization of the dream of many groups throughout the world--a country which is not a country, a place with no history, no blood-drenched territorial heartland, no previous tribes, no laws. Egan postulates how such an anarchy might work as a true cooperative. Most of the nations of the world, of course, are not happy that Stateless exists, and would be glad if it vanished; there are therefore many trade boycotts and access is difficult.

When he arrives, a mysterious person approaches him and warns him that the key physicist, his story subject, Violet Mosala, is in danger of being killed. This person is one of a growing number of humans who have forsaken sex, having themselves surgically altered so that they are neither male nor female, engendering new pronouns such as "ver" and "ve." Ve hints of an underground organization, which Worth eventually finds are the AC's. But who are they, what do they believe, and why are they so dangerous?

He finds that they believe that understanding--true understanding of the physical universe, of the history of matter and therefore of human beings--might lead to the collapse of everything. They feel they must prevent it, at any cost.

And the chase is on.

As usual, Egan taps all sorts of ideas from the edge, this time in the field of physics and cosmology, and works his magic of making them seem bedrock solid even as he inches out us out over a crevasse. As in everything he writes, he twins thoughtfulness with momentum, working each step of speculation skillfully into the mind of the reader until his invention reaches dizzying heights.

In DISTRESS, Egan has reached an entirely new level--still dazzling, yet richer in every possible way--plot, characterization, and realization of what he set out to do. It is a dramatic achievement in terms of scope, impact, and in the ideas with which he deals. Egan deftly pulls away from easy plot signifiers. The book is not to be about a murder trial, artificial DNA, Distress, Stateless and its new non-politics, or Violet Mosala. DISTRESS is the sum of many parts each rich enough in its own right to yield a novel, yet used gracefully and powerfully to support an edifice as unique, new, and rewarding as Stateless itself. The view from the top is vast and deeply satisfying; very much worth the climb.

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Last Update 11/10/98

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