01/10/2008. Contributed by Gareth D Jones
pub: Gollancz. 423 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08173-4).
check out website: www.orionbooks.co.uk
Yet again in this novel, 'Distress', Greg Egan mixes near-future prediction with dramatic speculation of what might conceivably come to pass, resulting in an entirely plausible picture of Earth that already shows signs of fulfilling his predictions thirteen years after its first publication.
The main character Andrew Worth is a TV news reporter who makes use of built-in recording equipment and software to provide instantaneous and personalised eyewitness accounts of breaking news. I remember on first reading the book that I was intrigued by the idea of facial recognition software being used to scan the internet (which I barely knew existed in 1995) and searching through endless digital TV channels to make a match. As usual with Egan there are other thoughtful innovations too such as the constantly growing man-made island named Stateless and what Egan novel would be complete without a healthy dose of physics and maths, supplied in this case by an international conference on the Theory of Everything?
As the violent and capricious world starts to impinge on the peaceful scientific summit there is much attention on Andrew Worth and the traumatic effects that previous news stories have had on him. This gives the novel a grittier feel than Egan's other books and I had the overall impression of a story firmly grounded in social developments of the near future. It makes for a compelling read.
Of course, the Theory of Everything gives rise to the odd moment of humour, the acronym TOE making the seemingly mundane take on a double meaning. I don't know whether Egan wrote any sentences deliberately to raise a smile, but I certainly enjoyed them:
'Do you have your own rival TOEs from "information physics", which the establishment won't take seriously?'
I don't think I could take rival TOEs seriously at all.
As with all the best fiction of the future, the novel doesn't just give us one or two innovations to give us the impression that things are different. Much background information is built up throughout the book to develop a feel for a society that is familiar yet subtly different to ours. It's a society and a story that is well worth experiencing.
Gareth D. Jones
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