The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   82


by Greg Egan

London: Millennium, 1996

"And the truth shall make you — "

Distress is about a physics conference in 2055, a conference on "theories of everything," TOEs, i.e. ultimate theories of elementary physics. A mysterious group, the Anthrocosmologists, are convinced that, first, there is a unique combination of a TOE and a history of the universe which suffice to account for someone being in a position to formulate the theory, and, second, the act of formulation itself calls that combination of physics and history into existence. (On the one hand, the formulation of the true TOE is a mechanical consequence of the raw physics and state of the universe; on the other hand, those are what they are because they're the only ones in which the TOE can be formulated.) Some of Anthrocosmologists are further convinced that, once the true TOE is formulated, the universe will fold up its tent and vanish. So we have a plot, revolving around the physicist voted most likely to formulate the theory of everything, Violet Mosala, a black South African woman (who doesn't quite agree with the Anthrocosmologists; her own ideas, near enough, have just been published under the imprimatur of the Cambridge University Press), the Anthrocosmologists who want her to succeed, the Anthrocosmologists who think that if she succeeds the world will simply stop, and our narrator, a freelance journalist covering the conference via the heavily-mortgaged neural recording hardware implanted in his guts.

We have, in addition: artificial islands grown by sociobiology-minded anarchist genetic engineers, voluntary autism, windmill farms, mercenaries, a devastating caricature of Fay Weldon, mathematical physics jargon I expect to see enter the literature, failing relationships, a one-sentence dismissal of the cosmology of Permutation City, technolibération which has nothing in common with technolibertarianism, seven distinct biological sexes, at least three shattering ontological realizations (this is an Egan novel: drink up!), non-violent resistance, a wired refugee camp, a tour of downtown Sydney, street theater, epidemic psychosis; and for starters, the resurrection of the dead for judgement. All of this, I should add, hangs together wonderfully; it's even, in its own fashion, economical. I don't think I've ever read a book which more perfectly obeyed Chekov's Pistol Principle ("if you put a pistol on the mantlepiece in the first act, it must go off by the end of the fourth").

In his author's note, Egan says that his two sources of inspiration were Steven Weinberg's Dreams of a Final Theory and Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism. An integral part of Distress is the message that one might expect from synthesizing those two books: science — objective, rational, reductionist science, as practiced by fallible, stupid, pig-headed and emotional human beings — is the key both to understanding our condition and to improving it. As such it is the universal heritage and right of humanity, no more tied to one culture than breathing. More: our condition is not that of spirits trapped in flesh, we are our flesh; and there's no outside line, no ghostly source of advice or approval or condemnation.

Distress is a good science fiction novel, with harder science than some papers in the Physical Review, which is also a militantly secular apocalypse. Do yourself a favor and inhale it at the earliest opportunity.

324 pp. hardback, 454 pp. paperback
Philosophy / Physics / Science Fiction
Out of print as a hardback (NY: HarperPrism, 1997, ISBN 0061052647) [Buy from Powell's]; in print as a paperback (1998), US$6.50, ISBN 0061057274 [Buy from Powell's], LoC PR9619.3 E35 D57.
28 April 1999