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Book review

Distress

by Greg Egan

Distress by Greg Egan

Andrew Worth, a journalist burnt out by his last expose on the abuses of biotech, persuades his boss to let him take over an assignment from another editor about a physics conference on the Theory of Everything. This conference is to take place on a human-created tropical island in the Pacific, which Andrew imagines will be just the tonic he needs. What could possibly go wrong? Other than nearly dying from a synthesized cholera virus, death threats to the Noble Prize winning Violet Mosala (whom Andrew is following through the conference), being held at gunpoint and kidnapped, the paradise itself being attacked, and the potential ending of the entire universe as we know it?

So it’s a busy old time for Andrew, and the plot moves along at pace, with great twists and turns. However, this isn’t just a great techno-thriller: it’s a brilliant exploration of the edges of modern physics, combined with some philosophical probings of what it is to be a separate self, set in a near future where the cults of scientific ignorance that we see today have gained dangerous power, and aren’t embarrassed to use the technologies that science has given them to further their aims. In its time, this was I suppose on the edge of cyberpunk, but there are also shades of Michael Crichton in the detailed use of science and technology as central to the plot, but not overwhelming it.

One of the things that amazed me about this book was just how good these technological predictions are. It’s set in 2055, but it was written in 1995, and it reads astonishingly well today. It could easily have been written in the last couple of years. The technology – gene splicing, virtual reality, machine/brain interfaces, instant worldwide data access – is all spot on for today, as are the concerns around climate change, online cults, and sexual identity. As a trivial example, there are seven identified sexes, with gender-neutral pronouns universally used. Pretty much the only flat note from a tech point of view is the use of infrared as a short-distance communications channel for device-to-device communications.

A solid five stars from me – I’ll be digging out more of Egan’s back catalogue asap!

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