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Distress by Greg Egan

Distress (1995)

by Greg Egan

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7161119,719 (3.75)15
  1. 10
    The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: These books share isolated anarchist communities and discoveries in physics that change everything.

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
This isn't one of Egan's best, I think -- as always, the mathematical and science ideas are solid (and pleasantly mindblowing), but at times I felt like the story itself was taking a backseat. Extra points for some very positive explorations of gender and sexuality (including having a very sympathetically-written gender-neutral, asexual character who played a large part in the story). It's good overall, solid Egan -- I just thought that, while it started out strong and ended strong, there was a bit of a slog in the middle. Maybe it wasn't quite fair to read it just after rereading [b:Axiomatic|156783|Axiomatic|Greg Egan|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1287341765s/156783.jpg|1270534]. ( )
  wirehead | Sep 3, 2018 |
**Distress** is another really enjoyable book by *Greg Egan*, part of his very loosely connected **Subjective Cosmology** trilogy. It's less "weird" than the other two parts, and might make a better starting point for interested readers. We accompany our protagonist, a scientific journalist, to a phyics conference on an anarchist island – less happens than in th other books, but that just finally leaves room for better characters and characterisations. The whole book, especially its increasingly twisty story arch, is very recommendable scifi. ( )
  _rixx_ | Aug 30, 2018 |
My reaction to reading this novel in 1997. Spoilers follow.

I had heard glowing things about Egan’s works. This work certainly proves he’s capable of producing works with some heady ideas and hard science.

The main scientific notion, anthrocosmology, has a somewhat tenuous connection to science but, while speculative, is subscribed to by enough physicists to call it hard science of the speculative sort. Distress is a mental disease – a “21 century AIDS of the mind” -- with no cure and growing. Its victims seem to exhibit strangely purposeful but incomprehensible behaviors. It also serves as a metaphor for the central theme of this novel – the consequences, in the political, personal, biological, and cosmic realms – of a clear-eyed vision of the universe. To be sure this is an old – perhaps the oldest – theme in science fiction, the Dr. Faust and Dr. Frankenstein stories. But Egan’s examples are disturbing and plausible in both a scientific and social sense (in other words, I can see people behaving the way Egan describes).

The book opens with the interrogation of a murder victim, briefly resurrected to gain clues to his killer. Many people have gone beyond traditional sex changes to become “asexs” (Egan creates a new class of pronouns for these people). The asexs have the need for sexual intimacy and the biochemical need for orgasm removed from their brains. There are “voluntary autists” who refuse to become cured by a brain graft. The view autism as liberating them from the delusion of intimacy, a product of evolution and biochemistry. (One character remarks that he doesn’t need delusions to stay sane and that is the ultimate verdict of the book.) Then there is the creepy, rich American Ned Landers who is the ultimate survivalist, made by himself to become a “new kingdom” of life by having the four bases of DNA replaced in his body with substitutes making him immune to new diseases and a suite of symbionts that make it possible for him to exist without oxygen, to eat grass, paper, and old tires (he has maps of North American tire dumps in case of an apocalypse.) He and his wife plan to pass on these modifications to his children. Later on, it is revealed he has more sinister plans to engineer viruses to kill normal humanity and replace it. (The ultimate refutation, as the reporter-narrator remarks, to the claim that no man is an island.)

This is all little more than background detail but shows the disturbing possibilities of “frankenscience”. Egan could have expanded this idea into a novel or novellas but had bigger things in mind. It is suggested that Landers may be the visible part of a much larger group with similar designs. There are the anarchists of the floating island of Stateless. They are all aware of the complex, engineered processes (using stolen genetic engineering techniques) that keep their island of coral afloat. They study not political philosophy but biology and sociobiology to understand the fundamentals of human nature which their diverse political experiments try to account for. But the main plot involves the intrigue and politics and murder surrounding Violet Mosala, an African woman and brilliant physicist who may just have completed a TOE – Theory of Everything. This not only annoys the Mystical Renaissance (a group who wrongly thinks their mystical ideas can be logically reconciled with science) and Ignorance Cults (who think that science can’t or, at least, shouldn’t explain certain things).

Egan, speaking primarily through his narrator and Mosala, spends a great deal of time attacking these notions and that science is simply a culturally biased procedure of relative truth used primarily by white male, Westerners. Egan clearly sees science as the only tool for producing truth. (Truth, says one character is what you can’t escape.) Egan attacks the notion that religion is necessary for morality. One character remarks that you can lead a moral life because you see it’s good. However, I’m unconvinced that religion can be excised – even if it is a delusion – from society without great harm. Egan’s view is morality as almost an aesthetic choice and certainly not a compelled choice. Egan attacks the notion that happiness is a substitute for understanding. I thought, upon rereading these sections, of all the modern proponents of religious faith. They chastise people for following their emotions and pursuing a course of emotional satisfaction but are they any better when they say accept religion on faith (a possible delusion) and for its emotional benefits? The unscientific aren’t the only ones who fear Mosala’s TOE. While some anthrocosmologists try to protect her because she is the keystone, the mind that will explain everything past and future and present, into being, others fear the possible consequences of her specific TOE (why I don’t fully understand) enough to kill her.

The end of the novel is anticlimactic, perhaps deliberately so, as the narrator becomes the keystone. His revelations aren’t as epic as expected. He fully realizes he’s a “dying machine of cells”, there are no absolutes, there is no real intimacy with other minds, no purpose to life beyond what we make, that everyone is a keystone (this isn’t explained well). It’s a cold, sterile, rather unhopeful ending, but you have to give credit to Egan for unflinchingly valuing truth above all else. (This story is in direct counterpoint to George R. R. Martin’s “The Way of Cross and Dragon”. The idea of observer created reality is also in Charles Harness’ “A Newer Reality”.) ( )
  RandyStafford | Jul 16, 2013 |
Trumping the gender issues raised, trumping the sexual issues, the political issues, the relationship issues, and the moral issues, this book was my first introduction to a cosmogony that required human consciousness, and so I was kept fascinated throughout. This is the second Greg Egan book I have read, slightly preferring "Diaspora" but both are highly recommended to hard science fiction and philosophy lovers. Dense and wonderful like Chris Moriarty. Fun with physics like Benford, fun with bioengineering like Bear, "Distress" is well-written with some very strong moral issues.

I tagged this book: Science Fiction, Australian Fiction, Epistemology, Eschatology, Bioengineering, Bioterrorism, Anarchism, Physics, Cosmogony, Gender, Feminism, Post-Singularity, Journalists, Hard SF, Cyberpunk, Transgender, Transhumanism, Novel, Fiction ( )
1 vote psybre | Feb 26, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0061057274, Mass Market Paperback)

After developing a lengthy exposé on "frankenscience," SeeNet reporter Andrew Worth is burnt out. So burnt that he passes up a plum assignment covering the new disease "Distress." Instead, he asks for a lower-key job profiling Violet Mosala, a scientist who earned a Nobel Prize at the age of 25 and who is about to announce her version of the Theory of Everything. The TOE is an attempt to explain how all scientific theories fit together, but it may actually be the catalyst that created the universe, making Violet the "Keystone" of the universe. So much for the quiet assignment ...

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:36 -0400)

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An adventure novel on a group of scientists whose work threatens to alter the universe. The hero is a science reporter with an implanted camera and the story features a world with five sexes. By an Australian writer, author of Permutation City.

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