Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Lost Books, Part I: Distress, by Greg Egan

Many writers have written reviews of non-existent books. This irregular feature will be a slight variation on that: I'll be reviewing books that did exist, but are out of print - usually , though not invariably, undeservedly so.

As a part-time genre specialist bookpimp, one of the things that most frustrates me is having to tell people that a good book is unavailable, except through second-hand booksellers (this is especially frustrating when it's one of my own novels). Conversely, one of the great delights is when one of these books comes back into print: I'm particularly grateful to Gollancz for their Science Fiction and Fantasy Masterworks series, but I've also been glad to see George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, R. A. MacAvoy's Tea with the Black Dragon, and Pat Murphy's The City, Not Long After reappear. (Emma Bull's War for the Oaks recently came out in A-format paperback, though in a horrible cover, but it seems to have vanished again.)

I'm reviewing these books in the very faint hope that it may inspire someone to reprint them, or at least motivate readers to look for them - but mostly, I suspect, I'm just venting my frustration.

Aptly, the first of these books is called Distress.

Greg Egan has been hailed as 'One of the genre's great ideas men' by no less an authority than The Times (the British version), which is undeniably accurate if rather faint praise. True, most of the Egan stories I've read are driven by strong ideas, rolling towards some overwhelming question. Certainly, he is generous, even profligate when it comes to ideas, and Distress in particular is crammed with brilliant inventions and discussions on a huge range of subjects: biotechnology, international politics, quantum physics, sex and gender, and the nature of reality. And yes, it is these ideas that make his work so distinctive, and very likely it will be the ideas that draw you in and the ideas that you remember long after finishing the story. But at his best, Greg Egan is also as skilled and powerful a literary craftsman as any other in the genre.

The first chapter, which begins 'All right. He's dead. Go ahead and talk to him.', contains more ideas than many sf novels. Its narrator, Andrew Worth, is a science journalist in a world populated with ignorance cultists, voluntary autists, and gender migrants. Having finished the 'frankenscience' series Junk DNA, he turns down an offer to tape a show on the newly endemic Acute Clinical Anxiety Syndrome (a.k.a Distress), to compile a profile of quantum physicist Violet Mosala, currently at work on a Theory of Everything, or TOE. Worth leaves Sydney and his marriage (both in ruins), and travels to Stateless, a utopian anarchy on an island constructed with pirated biotech. Plots against both Mosala and Stateless escalate as the novel heads towards an astonishing climax.

Worth, though occasionally reduced to a passive observer in some of the more didactic scenes (he is, after all, a journalist, and a specialist in biotech rather than physics or politics) as well as much of the action, is a well-rounded character with his own opinions and motivation. Mosala is a welcome example of a fictional sane scientist, and the asex Akili Kuwale is a masterpiece of sf characterization.

Fascinating yet accessible, and tightly written (apart from a brief rant about Australian stereotypes) with plenty of action amid the scientific and political discussions, Distress is my favourite of Egan's novels. Distressingly, it is also out of print. If you can't find a copy, console yourself with his novel Teranesia, or one of his excellent short fiction collections.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Or visit your local library. :)

This is one of my favorite books, from, as far as I'm concerned, the best hard sci-fi writer. 'Diaspora' and 'Schild's Ladder', minus some of the anthropomorphism, and agnostic regarding the exotic physics, seems a picture of a plausible future.