Greg Egan’s Distress – a SciFi book review

Here are two “jokes” from my Cracker Jack “prize” (when did they stop with the toys?) that are not half-way bad – they made my daughter laugh?

1. What did the alien say to the plant?

2. What do planets read?

Answers below!


Now for a critique/commentary on Greg Egan’s Distress. I warn you, the book is full of existentialist introspection; bio-technology and it’s impact on people; Utopian ideals set in motion/reality; and most of all, the field of TOEs, ATMs, and SUFTs, all described with lots of math, physics, and incomprehensible stuff for the layperson. I don’t know if you can summarize those concepts for someone with no math background, but if you can, he didn’t do it. I have only a rudimentary understanding of it all, so if this review is a bit crazy, then so am I on this subject. Still, the book worked, until the end. I started writing this piece when I had about 100 pages to go, and I was still puzzled about the disease that is the title of the book – so far it was merely a bit-player. I loved the existential feel and discussions in the book, and the way it made you stop, put down the book and actually think! about your life, and how you view it. Good read, at that time. How 100 pages can change your perspective 180°!

Don’t forget the answers to the jokes are below.

First of all the plot: a journalist, who has trouble with relationships, is finishing up a piece for the netzine he works for, SeeNet, called Junk DNA. It consists of four parts – one on VAs, voluntary autists – a cult group of people with mild autism who want to surgically remove part of their brain in order to make them fully autistic and free of society’s falsehoods and relationships. The same operation can cure autism, but they want to be made more autistic.

The second part is on a revival process. If a victim of a violent crime is clinically dead, past all hope of resuscitation, and might have witnessed the crime that killed him/her, then that person can be biologically/chemically reanimated for a short time, in order to be able to tell the detectives who “done it.” Revolting in some ways, but the piece is all about what the protagonist, Andrew, calls frankenscience – or science gone wrong.

The third is about a man who is a walking biosphere – a man who’s body was “swarming with engineered algae and alien genes.” In short, he is a walking recycling machine. His body can convert sunlight to glucose, and the “symbionts” living in his blood can turn carbon dioxide to oxygen in any amount – thus assuring him of clean air even in the worst cases of pollution. His 37 symbionts can “eat” just about any matter, from paper to old tires, and convert it to the needed energy. He’s immune to famine, mass extinctions, and he has engineered himself total viral immunity (more on him later).

The last piece is on the HealthGuard implant – an assay chip embedded in the subject’s body, sending back information on the owner’s state of health at any given time for actuarial (insurance) purposes. That part of the piece has some relevance to another “project” I’m working on – Clarke’s 3rd Law about when technology becomes sufficiently advanced so as to be indistinguishable from magic. This has been a subject of some controversy on my HardSF book group, and I hope to do a post on it later on. But for now here’s what Egan says:

“It was a technical advance worth communicating, worth explaining, worth demystifying. Whatever the social implications of the HealthGuard implant, they could no more be presented in a vacuum, divorced from the technology which made the device possible, than vice versa. Once people ceased to understand how the machines around them actually functioned, the world they inhabited began to dissolve into an incomprehensible dreamscape. technology moved beyond control, beyond discussion, evoking only worship or loathing, dependence or alienation. Arthur C. Clarke had suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic – referring to a possible encounter with an alien civilization – but if a science journalist had one responsibility above all else, it was to keep Clarke’s Law from applying to human technology in human eyes.”

This is a powerful idea and one that I will explore at a later date – for now, just think of how some people today can’t even program a VCR or use add someone to their MyFaves. To them, some of the technology on the drawing boards is an incomprehensible as a light-bulb would be to one of the founding fathers. Using magic in it’s broadest sense.

In Andrew Worth’s world, he is surrounded by technology – notepads that function as a wireless computer, with a built in dataminer, called Sisyphus. He has an implant in his eye, that he can “invoke,” called Witness, and it will date/time stamp and record any event for future use. It is then later simply downloaded, through an umbilical implant attachment, to his notepad, or other device. The cities are deserted as nearly everyone works at home on-line. The cities are figurative”ruins” that can be full of gangs and criminals, but a few have tried to revive parts and brought in theatres and restaurants, many featuring “experimental cuisine,” a bio-engineered food substitute, made from various things that are made to taste like regular food, although they look completely different.

The book is full of existential themes and angst. In one crucial scene, while he is going over the demise of his latest relationship, his friend, who had long ago declared he would never marry, but now has a wife and kids, said: “‘I meant it, though. At the time. The whole idea of a family–‘ He shuddered. ‘It sounded like being buried alive. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.’ Andrew replies: ‘So you grew up. Congratulations.’ His friend replied ‘No one grows up. That’s one of the sickest lies they ever tell you. People change. people compromise. People get stranded in situations they don’t want to be in … and they make the best of … glorious preordained ascent into emotional maturity. It’s not.’ Andrew asked him if everything was okay with his wife and kids. he replied: ‘No. Everything’s fine. Life is wonderful. I love them all. But … only because I’d go insane if I didn’t. Only because I have to make it work.

‘But you do make it work.’ ‘Yes!’…’and it’s not even that hard, anymore. It’s pure habit. But…I used to think there’d be more. I used to think that if you changed from … valuing one thing to valuing another, it was because you’d learned something new, understood something better. And it’s not like that at all. I just value what I’m stuck with. That’s it, that’s the whole story. People make a virtue out of necessity. They sanctify what they can’t escape.’

‘But I do love Lisa, and I do love the girls … but there’s no deeper reason than the fact that that’s the best I can make of my life, now. I can’t argue with a single thing I said when I was nineteen years old – because I don’t know better now. I’m not wiser. That’s what I resent: all the f&*^ing pretentious lies we were fed about growth and maturity. No one ever came clean and admitted that ‘love’ and ‘sacrifice’ were just what you did to stay sane, when you found yourself backed into a different kind of corner.'”

This passage made me really think – to put down the book and examine my own life. Did I truly love my family, or was it only because that’s the path I followed, the “right” thing to do, given the situation I wandered into, letting life sort of pull me along. I never made any conscious decisions to marry or have children – I was brought along for the ride, so to speak, by my ex-husband, who at around age 45 had a mid-life crisis, and decided there had to be more; dumping me faster than a hot potato and leaving me with the girls and no future. So what could I do? I couldn’t be selfish and say no thanks! I did what was right, what was expected of me. And I realized that there was no one else to do it – to love and cherish these girls. I love my children to death, but I also was “trapped” into it. I didn’t have “free will” and was backed, like many, into this corner of family life. I think that this is one of the reasons the divorce rate is so high. It’s not because of a decline in social morals, but rather a realization that there are/were other choices that could have been or still be made, and often people discard those old corners they were backed into, and break out on their own, for better or worse. So, an existential question – does “life’ have meaning by itself, or is just a series of compromises we make with what we have?

The title of the book comes from a disease called “Distress,” a disease that is growing, and has nightmarish consequences – the victims live in a perpetual state of distress – sort of a PTSD taken to the limits, and are filled with dread, fear, and anxiety, which manifests itself in thrashing about, muttering and moaning, etc. The importance of the disease seems to be irrelevant for most of the book – which makes the title puzzling, even after the book is done.

Andrew is asked to do a piece on Distress, but is seemly afraid (the reason he chooses not to do this prestigious piece is not fully realized in the book) and instead “steals” a different piece from a junior reporter on a major conference on TOEs (Theory of Everything), ATMs (All Topology Models), and SUTFs (Standard Unified Field Theory), and Egan does a fine job (although maybe not from a lay perspective) on describing these mathematical and physics models, and the reason for their importance in both physics/math, but in life as well. The heart of the conference is that one of the speakers might present a true, complete TOE, and that might be the “end” of physics as we know it. Of course that’s not true – it is just the starting point, but all sorts of “ignorance” cults have come to the island nation of “Stateless.”

Stateless is a “rogue” nation, boycotted by most countries because of it’s origins. A group of scientists stole some bio-specimens and bio-tech, and “grew” their own island in the South Pacific. The island is full of artists, musicians, and scientists, etc. There is no government, and people have formed into various knots of cultural ties/religions, but there is no government – it’s an “anarchy” in the basest sense. What Andrew can’t figure out is why it stays that way, and why the residents feel it always will – why they don’t worry about the next generation dissolving into absolute anarchy. Part of it is in the fact that the people who emigrate there do so voluntarily – they have a vested interest in the “state,” and in part, of the nature of the island itself, something you’ll have to discover yourself. But the island works, which is apparently in the best interest of the group the bio-tech was originally stolen from – that their “product” can be so used, and be so useful, can only enhance their stature (which brings us to a point in the last 100 pages that I will explain later).

Andrew is assigned to interview and tape one of the TOE presenters, Violet Masala, from South Africa. What starts out as being an easy “vacation” piece becomes fraught with information overload, bizarre fringe cults that impact the conference and himself, and various other things that bring the focus away from the “easy” interview and into the realm of a major assignment. He was not prepared for what he found, and the reporter who did all the background work won’t return his calls.

What he makes of it all, you’ll have to read. But, except for a lack of information on the titular disease (later explained in the book in some part), and a few other missing details, Egan does a marvellous job of world-building in the near-future. The ubiquitous cults, the island, the existential crises his friend, and later himself, go through, are all intricately detailed and held out for our inspection, and it passes mine. It’s the ending that left be feeling that I’d been robbed.

And the characters were flat to me (mentioned by someone years ago in a discussion of this book in my HardSF group), and I agreed with their assessment – to me, I have to have someone I can root for, and I just couldn’t get anywhere with Andrew – although his personal life, and existential crises are detailed out, it never rings quite true, and indeed, his one rant (when he was ill) was rather odd. And Violet Masala – she started out as a witchy sort – later became “cool,” and at the end finally, seemed to thaw. But she never was more than a buzz in his ear, and his ostensible reason for going to the conference, as well as a vehicle to truly describe the TOE that is the heart of the book.

I’d give it a 6 (originally an 8, and that was because it’s premise is slight, but it’s treatment was first class, until those last 100 pages).

So, SPOILERS AHEAD!!! Read at your own risk, because in order to do justice to my opinion of the book, I have to give some stuff away. I’ll try and limit it, but if you plan to read the book and love surprises, don’t read further, but scroll to the bottom for the joke answers.












There is much discussion of some of the cults that exist, throughout the book, and in particular, a few which attend the conference to protest the TOEs. One of these Mystical renaissance, is a front-runner, but in the last 100 pages, sort of disappears, and you’re left wondering why they were given so much space.

Another important cult are the Anthrocosmologists, one of the cults embracing “technolibération, which means the “empowerment of people through technology, and the ‘liberation’ of the technology itself from restrictive hands” – in other words, supporting technology in all it’s bizarre applications (like in Junk DNA), but also taking it away from the White Male West, and into the hands of the people, especially science starved Africa. The term started there, with a distinguished scientist.

ACs, as they are called, believe (at least the moderate wing) in merging information theory, an old science, with the TOE, to achieve what they believe is the “end” result. As the books explains “Imagine this cosmology. Forget about starting the universe with just the right finely-tuned Big Bang needed to create stars, planets, intelligent life, and a culture capable of making sense of it all. Instead, take as your ‘starting point’ the fact that there’s a living human being who can explain an entire universe, in terms of a single theory. Turn everything around, and take it as the only thing given that this one person exists.”

“From this person, the universe ‘grows out’ of the power to explain it: out in all directions, and forward and backward in time. Instead of being blasted out of pre-space – instead of being ’caused’ inexplicably at the beginning of time – it crystallizes quietly around a single human being.”

“That’s why the universe obeys a single law– a Theory of Everything. It’s all explained by a single person. We call this person the Keystone. Everyone, and everything, exists because the Keystone exists.”

“We can’t watch the universe emerge; we’re part of it, we’re trapped inside the space-time created by the act of explanation. All we can hope to witness, in the progression of time, is one person become the first to hold the TOE in vis [an asex term for him/her asexual humans] mind, and grasp its consequences, and – invisibly, imperceptibly – understand us all into being.

So this group of moderates wishes to “protect” the TOE presenters, in particular, Mosala, who has had threats against her for many things, in order that she might be the Keystone that unlocks the universe, and “understands it into being.” Without it, we’re locked into the same dead space we still occupy.

Then there are extremist ACs, who believe that only ONE person is designed to be the Keystone and that person is predetermined. So, no matter what they, or who they kill, the real Keystone will still exist, because they can’t get it wrong. But other extremists believe that having NO TOE is the more desirable state, as it leaves no end to the possibility of transcendence. Some of the TOE theories leave open (to them) the possibility of other universes, other cosmologies. But these people want more – transcendence.

They believe that “information space,” at the time the Keystone comes the Keystone, in it’s initial configuration, is called the “Aleph.” The Aleph is the pure information preceding all physical things. “The Keystone’s ‘knowledge’ and ‘memory’ come first. The brain which encodes them follows.” The Keystone doesn’t have to think everything into being – it follows by logical implication.

In Violet Masala’s TOE, she uses the concept of forgetting the fine-tuning of the Big Bang theory. Taking our own existence as given, which in some ways parallels the AC’s views, she uses various experiments in which she knows the variables, etc., and assigns them a probability of existing as 100%, something the other TOE theorists won’t do – they want to start with a clean empty slate of physical constraints, and bring it down to pure mathematics. She takes these established facts (the results and conditions of known experiments) as a kind of anchor, and then she “reach[es] down into the level of the TOE, down to the level of infinite sums over all topologies. I calculate what the consequences of my assumptions are, and then I follow them all the way back up again to the macroscopic level, to predict the ultimate results of the experiment.”

And here’s where it starts to get a little mystical, cosmic energy sort of thing, to me – Masala explains to Andrew that (and she reaches out to hold his hand) “without pre-space to mediate between us – without an infinite mixture of topologies able to represent us all with a single flicker of asymmetry – nobody could even touch. That’s what the TOE is. And even if I’m wrong in every detail… I still know it’s down there, waiting to be found. Because there has to be something which lets us touch.”

The extremist AC’s believe that physics, without information, and vice versa, is meaningless, and so the TOE needs to take both into account, and Violet’s TOE does that – she is the only one that does. But once the TOE is completed by the Keystone, the universe will unravel, as complete understanding goes back onto to itself into the beginnings of the universe, effectively obliterating our universe. So they try and stop her – by a bio-weapon.

The last 100 pages differed dramatically from the first 400+. At the place of Egan’s “departure” from normalcy, the island is being closed in on by mercenaries, backed by the company that the bio-tech was stolen from. Now why this is has suddenly become an issue for the company, after about 10 years of lawsuits and small petty attempts of harassment, is unclear; either he glossed over it, or Egan changed his view completely that the island was a living testament to the bio-tech, and as such, it did no harm for the company. The only thing I can think of is that there has been a boycott of the island by most major countries, due to it’s questionable origins and the desire of the nations to stay on the good side of the bio-tech companies, and now Violet Masala, a leading South African scientist, is contemplating a permanent move there – to become a citizen of Stateless. This is supposedly a move on her part, because of her stature in the world’s eye, to try and add credibility to the island and help force the hand of those who boycott the island. But how and why this will hurt the company that owned the stolen bio-tech, I must have missed, when I turned a page. Actually, I just found it – it’s a short paragraph where our hero theorizes that the company, although not wanting to turn Violet into a martyr by killing her (see radical ACs later), wants to reduce the island to panic and “anarchy,” thus proving to the world “that the naive experiment had been doomed from the start.” But how this helps the company is still murky for me. And why Violet’s move is so controversial, must be a small footnote, somewhere.

It turns out this self-same company (En-Gen-Uity) is behind a group of mercenaries who have seized the airport in a bloodless coup (to start a panic and reduce the island to complete anarchy, and later takes to shelling the city; driving the people, in orderly fashion, and by their own volition, to the edges of the island – for the islanders know something the mercenaries don’t; but you, the reader, will find out. Not that it has anything to do with the plot, except that we/I seem to have a vested interest in the success of this tiny island. When our hero Andrew keeps asking them if they are afraid, they say, don’t worry – it’s all been taken care of and planned for.

But then Violet turns sick – from the same kind of bio-warfare that hit our hero earlier – his goes off too early- the bio-weapons seem to be “timed, – and they are able to get an antidote onto the island, which has primitive medical capabilities, by the rest of the world’s standards, and he is saved from a horrendous case of cholera, which gave rise to many of his existentialist musings, as he lay dying. But now Violet is brought down with the same type of bio-weapon, although a different strain/disease, as did one of the Japanese TOE presenters, who never even made it to the island and eventually died from it, and no antidote can be flown in, due to the boycott, plus she is sicker. Just where and how they contracted these disease is a mystery until the end (you find out a part, but not all). Violet is flown back to South Africa, after much wheeling and dealing by our hero with the mercenaries, for safe passage and her government for transportation (a private jet) to the boycotted island (no direct flights there from almost anywhere – you just can’t get there from here). On the way to the airport, in the ambulance, she records for posterity her visions of the TOE, and what she has done with it – she has made a “clonelet”, some type of computer software, and has given it the instructions needed to complete her TOE, once the calculations that will confirm her theory are shortly finished, and to publish it simultaneously to every scientist and university on the planet, in an attempt to bypass the “killing” orders of a radical branch of the group of “Anthrocosmologists.”

What happens next, in the crazy environment that is Stateless during the “siege” and Violet’s extreme illness, and the clonelet’s work on finishing the TOE by a specified time, becomes, in those last few pages, an exercise in self-indulgence, even “self-stimulation” if you get my drift. It’s as if the author is experiencing an orgasmic religious fervour – a mystical look into the cosmos. He describes it in lyrical prose, and while it may feel right to him, it simply doesn’t fit the tone of the earlier 3/4 of the novel, which relied heavily on science and physics/mathematics in particular. It’s as if “The Little Prince,” “What the Bleep! Do We Know,” and “The Secret” have all melted into one small section of a SciFi novel to become an author’s over-indulgent rapturous look at the cosmos, the universe, ourselves,and the interconnectedness of it all. For when the Toe is eventually “read,” what happens is pure New Age. and the epilogue is bizarre.

Some earlier parts from the book just sort of “pop” back up, with no real excuse, except perhaps as red herrings – but this isn’t a mystery novel, it’s Hard SciFi. Take his Junk DNA piece – the human genome experiment guy turns out to be manufacturing viruses for which he of course has total immunity. His “species self-knowledge” had allowed him to make himself the definition of what Egan calls the “H-word” or humanity. So what? There are several instances of this “mystery” theme. The journalist who was supposed to be doing the piece, and from who he stole it, and had collected so much information, seems to be missing, etc. The book is replete with little “mysteries” and lots of red herrings that have no real part of the story – they are interesting in their own right, but end up just “floating” in the story line – not a part of it at all.

It was an extreme disappointment, in a novel that held much promise, from an author that has been widely touted. It was just too touchy-feely, too mystical, too New Age for my tastes. It spoiled the book for me, and I doubt I would ever re-read it. Indeed, it’s going back to be traded in, something I rarely do.

And now for the answers to the Cracker Jack jokes of the week:

1. What did the alien say to the plant?
a. Take me to your weeder!

2. What do planets read?
a. Comet books!

LOL! A somewhat enjoyable book, and you can skim across the more detailed math and physics (if you are a lay person – I couldn’t even begin to know if he was writing it in a manner that most could understand – I’m that lacking in basic math and physics – it’s the big picture stuff, or should I say the quantum level, that I am interested in) and focus on the interactions, the sociological implication of the ubiquitous cults, and the notion of a “stateless” state. The book is a study in near-future – what SciFi SHOULD be, when done right (at least the first part). This is the first book of his I have read, and it definitely will NOT be my last, as I’m curious if this is a fluke, since others have thoroughly enjoyed his books, and even gone so far as to say “since when is there a BAD Egan book.”? Well, I might quibble with that, but later reflection might find that the ideas presented outweigh the negative ending, and move it up a notch.


4 responses to “Greg Egan’s Distress – a SciFi book review

  1. I recently read a great book called Unholy Domain.
    I really liked it. The author, Dan Ronco, reminds me of Michael Crichton. It has the searing action of a thriller and the vision of great science fiction.

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