Distress, Greg Egan

Millennium, 1995, 343 pages, C$18.95 tpb, ISBN 1-85798-285-1

Greg Egan!

To hordes of discerning Hard-SF fans (how do you call a quantity of Hard-SF fans? A Mole? A Kilofan? A Clement? Never mind…), an almost-Pavlovian drooling reflex engages when hearing the name. Greg Egan is one of the most capable new writers of pure, undiluted Hard-SF. In a market cornered by fat fantasy trilogies, and media-SF derivates, this willingness to play with the net up is quite laudable.

Not only is Egan capable to write Hard-SF, but he’s also willing to tackle some of the biggest issues there are. His first three SF novels are concerned with cosmology, quantum realities, Theories of Everything, consciousness, and other not-quite-pedestrian subjects.

What makes reading Egan a blast is the apparently effortless idea-tossing found in his fiction: Almost every page contains a new surprising concept, and Egan seldom neglects to explore the consequence of his extrapolations. His stories also make heavy use of biology, a facet of science too often neglected by Hard-SF (usually identified with cold, dependably mathematic physics.) His short stories (collected in Axiomatic) garnered raves everywhere. Now, his novels are doing the same.

Distress begins with a bang, as a video-journalist witnesses the temporary resurrection of a murder victim by police authorities. The sequence is chillingly effective, and goes a long way to establish both the tone and the protagonist of the novel.

Soon enough, we get into the main story of the novel, which is a conference taking place on a man-made tropical country, dealing with the holy grail of modern physics: Theories of Everything. If the novel’s protagonist used of his influence to cover the event, he’ll soon discover that he’s up to his neck in shadowy dealings with entities whose goals are either laughable, or all-important.

And despite a few odd turns of plot, Egan manages to keep all of this pretty well balanced until the last hundred pages, where everything dissolves in a wave of intentionally confusing reversals. Egan is always stronger in beginnings than conclusions (especially when he makes up his mind to reformat the universe at the end of his novels), and Distress is no exception.

But as they say, the trip is half the voyage: Greg Egan has the too-rare ability to conjure up truly believable futures. Unlike other authors who limit their world-building to fancy cars and a sprinkling of neologisms, Egan can extrapolate like the best of them, and the result is -no other word for it- tasty.

In fact, culinary metaphors might be the most appropriate to discuss Distress. Like intricate hors-d’oeuvres, our appetite is whetted by the small details of the protagonist’s ordinary life before springing on us the main course; the trip to the conference. Egan’s take on 21st century theoretical physics makes up most of the nutritive content of the novel. Chef Egan puts too much sugar in his desserts, however, and the overall impression of the meal is marred by the too-rich endings.

Nevertheless, Distress is another success for Egan, and deserves to be celebrated by Hard-SF fans everywhere. It should be out shortly in US-paperback format so interested readers shouldn’t wait to grab it before long.

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