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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Greg Egan

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To purchase Distress

Title: Distress
Author: Greg Egan
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 454 pages
Availability: Distress - US
Distress - UK
Distress - Canada
L'énigme de l'univers - France
Qual - Deutschland
Distress - Italia
El instante Aleph - España

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Our Assessment:

B : ambitious science fiction with a solid pay-off, but overcrowded along the way

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/6/1997 Gerald Jonas
San Francisco Chronicle . 13/7/1997 Daniel Marcus

  From the Reviews:
  • "Such a strong opening presents Egan with a problem: how can he sustain the narrative energy ? Unfortunately, he opts for excess. (...) Egan's theme is the power of ideas, and he dutifully provides a brief precis of each concept he introduces. But with so much going on, he has no time to follow any one theme to sufficient depth. The result is a dizzying intellectual adventure that moves too fast for its own good." - Gerald Jonas, The New York Times Book Review

  • "One gets the feeling at times not of reading a novel, but of witnessing an extended conversation Egan is having with himself on subjects ranging from biotechnology to particle physics to social theory. It's a little messy and it makes for a dense, chewy, sometimes difficult read, but it works. Egan knows his material, has a keen talent for extrapolation, a vivid imagination and a passion for intellectual banter." - Daniel Marcus, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The opening lines of Distress certainly grab the reader's attention:

     "All right. He's dead. Go ahead and talk to him."
       Set in 2055, among the technological advances of the time is the possibility to briefly keep a person's mind -- and some muscles -- going after death, in this case in the hopes of a murder victim being able to identify his killer. The scene is witnessed and recorded by Andrew Worth, an investigative reporter working on a segment for an episode of Junk DNA -- the novel's narrator.
       While this breakthrough hasn't been achieved yet, it's interesting to read Distress at a point roughly halfway between its writing (1995) and its setting and see how much Egan imagines is on the right track, from the ubiquity of tablets to the fragmentation of what used to be the TV landscape and its replacement by an near-infinite number of streaming offerings (with Worth, for example, working for a company called SeeNet), as well as the flood of disinformation that comes with it. From gender issues -- including the idea of a: "kind of brain surgery which had once been highly controversial: NGR. Neural gender reassignment" -- to issues around genetic engineering (with making heritable changes in human genes still illegal in the US ("and most other places"), for example) and control, legal and otherwise, over technological advances, many present-day concerns are also at the fore.
       So also two of the main concepts that figure prominently in the story: physicists' continuing sarch for an all-explaining 'Theory of Everything' (TOE) and the idea of a libertarian-type haven outside the international system -- here the floating, man-made island of Stateless, with about a million inhabitants, to which Worth travels for a story. (Egan also has Worth explain how the floating island has been built -- a neat explanation, the details of which also comes into play in the final resolution of one of the storylines.)
       The project Worth signs on for is to profile twenty-seven-year-old Nobel Prize-winning physicist Violet Mosala at a conference celebrating the centenary of Einstein's death, where she is to be one of three scientists presenting a 'Theory of Everything'. The project has been "nearly promised" to another reporter, Sarah Knight, who has been researching it for months, but Worth swoops in and takes over the job -- rather than the other one he is offered, on a mysterious new ailment, 'Acute Clinical Anxiety Syndrome', also known as 'Distress'. His producer describes Distress as: "the world's alphamost virus", but without even an associated virus yet having been discovered, Worth thinks the hysteria surrounding it is overblown. (Meanwhile, Sarah Knight's fate after she is booted off the project also bobs in the background for much of the story.)
       It's already a hassle getting to Stateless -- the essentially-outlaw state not directly reachable from, among many other countries, Australia, where Worth is based, -- but Worth does make it there and gets on the story. The story is bigger than it might have first seemed, as Mosala is also threatened by some who have concerns about a Theory of Everything being revealed. A shadowy group of Anthrocosmologists, in particular, think her ToE might pose a real threat. Mosala thinks theirs is a "lunatic view", and when it's explained to Worth he too harbors doubts -- but has to admit: "As cult pseudoscience went, at least this was high-class bullshit".
       Some of the threats -- to people, including Worth, and the island itself -- turn into actions, too. There are forces willing to go to extremes to get their way -- including infecting Worth with cholera. The danger to Mosala also turns out to be very real -- and matters are further complicated when the island is invaded by mercenaries. The locals don't think the outside forces stand much of a chance, but in the short-term they certainly cause problems -- not least in complicating the Theory of Everything-reveal. Suspense builds as to whether Mosala will be in any condition or position to make hers known before time runs out.
       There's decent action throughout, building then especially nicely when things come to a real head, but Distress does feel torn in a few too many directions, with Worth buffeted around rather extremely. It's tied up nicely -- with a short Epilogue set fifty years later allowing Egan to sum up all the fallout of what happened -- but much along the way is a bit messily crowded, Egan throwing a few too many minor things in, clever though they often are. Having Worth narrate limits the novel some, to his perspective -- the limited amount he knows, at any point -- and while that allows the reader to discover what is happening along with him, this is material that deserves a broader perspective covering the different forces at work.
       Distress is reasonably entertaining -- and does, ultimately, offer a good pay-off -- but it's bit lumpy in its progress.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 December 2023

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Distress: Reviews: Greg Egan: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Greg Egan was born in 1961.

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© 2023 the complete review

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