Man. Cosmology makes my head hurt. Still, no one can deny that questions about the very nature of existence itself can be dazzling and exciting things to ponder. But should there be, as some seem to think, limits to our knowledge? Is a little knowledge, not to mention a lot of knowledge, a dangerous thing? It appears many people do fear the prospect. In his book Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins discusses how the very act of explaining the marvels and mysteries of the world around us, far from filling some people with wonder and awe, instead propels them into an existential crisis. With comforting myths stripped away by the explanatory power of science, many people are driven to despair, believing — unjustly — that the light of scientific scrutiny is a cold light that renders life itself bleak and meaningless.
That kind of existential crisis — and more — is at the heart of Distress, a remarkable early novel by one of hard SF's leading lights. Greg Egan, showing a stronger command of character development and an improved skill at making difficult scientific concepts accessible than he did in the earlier Permutation City, tells the story of the potential end of all things. The book is set in the mid-21st century. Andrew Worth is a celebrity journalist for the global SeeNet, who covers what could be best termed extreme science; a man who is having his entire body replaced bit by bit, for instance. When his girlfriend dumps him for being too devoted to his work, Worth decides he needs a break. He rejects an assignment to cover a growing outbreak of bizarre psychological trauma called Distress in favor of what he thinks will be a cushy, high-profile job, interviewing the world's leading physicist at a conference where she is about to present her completed Theory of Everything (or TOE for short). This is the long-sought theory to explain the underlying fabric of existence itself, and it is, to say the least, a little controversial.
When Andrew arrives at the conference where 27-year-old Nobel laureate Violet Mosala will present her paper, trouble is already in the air. The conference is taking place on an artificial island called Stateless, which is under a widespread international boycott due to its having been developed with pirated biotechnologies. There are rumors that Mosala is actually planning to emigrate to Stateless permanently from her native South Africa. Whatever the case, she has already been followed to Stateless by members of several so-called Ignorance Cults, who reject and fear science for its annoying habit of puncturing their most precious myths.
Most of these folks are simple nuisances, but one group in particular seems a legitimate danger. Worth is approached by a member of the Anthrocosmologists, who openly tells him that Mosala needs protection from would-be assassins. It appears that among the Anthrocosmologists themselves — a shadowy group Worth has a hard time researching — there is a schism, with the more extreme members posing a real threat to Mosala's life.
What are they so worked up about? Well, it seems they have a bizarre and difficult to grasp cosmology in which time flows every which way and the universe only exists at all because someday, someone (to whom they refer as the Keystone) will come along with a TOE to explain it into existence. But this act will also destroy the universe, the act of explaining it somehow causing it to unravel into a chaos of pure information. Or something. However it works, it's something a lot of them are willing to kill Mosala for. Are they merely lunatics blinded by their beliefs, or is there something to their fears? And what, if anything, does the growing outbreak of Distress have to do with it?
Well, I told you this stuff made my head hurt. But Egan makes it all fascinating even to those of his readers who don't have multiple Ph.D's. In some ways, not fully grasping everything that was going on at given times actually heightened the story's tension, a difficult narrative trick that most writers simply cannot pull off. If Distress has a flaw, it's that sometimes there is just too much plot happening. There are so many players, small and large, with a stake in the outcome, that it can be difficult to keep track. And inevitably, as is the case with a great deal of hard SF, there are frequent long stretches of jargon-heavy dialogue needed to get across the novel's headier concepts.
But by golly, this is what SF is supposed to be: a literature of dazzling, brain-bending, universe-expanding ideas designed to challenge and, if need be, even intimidate and alienate you into thinking about things the way you never have done before. Distress contains some of the most eloquent passages I have ever read extolling the need for science and rationalism in a world frought with ideologies, beliefs, and prejudices. With a storyteller like Greg Egan in the house, the world — not just the world of SF — is a much saner place.