SF: Distress by Greg Egan

It’s official, I really like science fiction author Greg Egan!

Egan is among the modern science fiction authors; his first SF work, the short story Artifact, was published in 1983, so he’s been writing SF for about 28 years. Like many science fiction authors with a science or technical education, he writes non-fiction as well.

And here’s the thing: If you like your science fiction hard, you want to know about Greg Egan! He writes SF as hard as any I know. For instance, consider a novel (Incandescence) in which a key plot thread involves alien beings discovering (Einstein’s) General Relativity in a completely different way than Einstein did. He reminds me of Hal Clement on several levels, particularly so in the novel I just cited, as part of it is told from the aliens’ point of view (a common device in Clement’s work).

According to Wikipedia, Clement was the “leader of the hard science fiction sub-genre.” I would go along with that. There was a lesser-known author, George O. Smith, who wrote some extremely hard SF back in the day of radio tubes (the 40s). Venus Equilateral, a collection of short stories, is a must-read if you’re a high-tech SF fan, especially if you have any background in radio or electronics. Communications in space. With radio tubes! But I digress. My point is that Greg Egan could easily be the modern leader of hard SF.

And while I’ve only read two of his novels, a couple short stories and parts of his website, I’m hooked. It’s not just the ultra-hard SF; I like his writing and his characters, and I really like his ideas. Some of his stories involve alternate realities with different physics than ours. Others involve extremely advanced civilizations far in the future (for example, when we’ve conquered the galaxy and transcended our physical bodies to live as software).

Recently I read his novel, Distress. It was so engaging I read the entire 454 pages in one day (even missed the start of the ballgame). It’s hard not to get hooked on a novel that begins:

“All right. He’s dead. Go ahead and talk to him.”

That’s an opening that begs for explanation!

It turns out that the mystery behind those lines only serves to introduce the story’s main character. This opening scene involves a bit of science fiction that doesn’t have much direct connection with the main plot; it’s not unlike the opening scene of any James Bond movie.

Yet the level of hard science detail and imagination behind this “throw away” scene is impressive, and it’s what makes Egan’s work so attractive to geeks such as I.

I’m not going to explore the book’s plot; you can get a bit of that from its Wikipedia article (admittedly a scant description) or from Mr. Egan’s site (which also doesn’t have much plot detail). Better yet, just read it and let it unfold.  The Wiki article does at least touch on that this book is no mere adventure. As with all really good science fiction, the adventure is just wallpaper to the social commentary.

For one example, in the novel’s future there are five recognized genders among humans, and Egan introduces the neo-pronouns ve, ver and vis (for he, she, her and his) to accommodate gender-free speech.  I couldn’t help but remember a high school English teacher who offered the class an instant A for the year to anyone who could  come up with decent, useable gender-free pronouns.  I wonder if he would have accepted Egan’s?

There are some other parts of the book I want to mention. The first concerns the role of technology in modern society:

“It was a technical advance worth communicating, worth explaining, worth demystifying. … Once people ceased to understand how the machines around them actually functioned, then the world they inhabited began to dissolve into an incomprehensible dreamscape. Technology moved beyond control, beyond discussion, evoking only worship or loathing, dependence or alienation. Arthur C. Clarke had suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic…”

While the novel takes place in the future, many people today have no idea how most of the technology that fills their world actually works. No idea at all. It’s not like having some vague idea about how a car engine works (and I imagine many people don’t). It’s seeing your cell phone or computer or TV as—literally—indistinguishable from a magical device.

Another part I want to remember considers the difference between religious and scientific pursuit. A character poses the question, ‘If modern human culture was wiped out, and the human race had to start fresh, what kinds of religious and scientific structures would be build?” That character goes on to suggest that the religious structures would likely differ considerably from those today. One proof of this might be the differences among modern and past religions.  On the other hand, the scientific structures would likely be very similar to what we have today. Mathematics, for example, is a universal language once the meanings behind the specific symbols are communicated.

The author’s point, obviously, is that science is based on the real world, and therefore all scientific structure converges on that reality. Religious structures, however, are deemed purely social inventions, and their structure depends on local social viewpoints.

If we do live in a godless universe, then the above is certainly true.  If we don’t, then one presumes that religious structures would tend to converge on their reality.  And by one account, you can argue they do: As I’ve mentioned before, all religions seem to me to share the twin ideas that (a) there is more to life than all this and (b) what you do in life, how you are, matters.  I might also argue the human tendencies to feel love and awe also reveal the fingerprint of something mystical.

Regardless, science does have the important and progressive feature of converging on the real world over time. Eventually phlogiston and epicycles and mysterious Pioneer accelerations reveal their incorrectness. It turns out that neutrinos do not go faster than light (not that anyone actually thought they did)!

Egan’s background in science gives his work a solid hard-sf foundation that I love. As I mentioned above, Incandescence deals with the invention of General Relativity! How cool is that?  (If you’re an über-geek, it’s mega-cool, even giga-cool.)  Distress involves the discovery of the “TOE” (Theory Of Everything) and what happens when you discover such a thing.

I will say that in the final chapters the scope of the book expands in a way that I have a little trouble with. Just not a fan of that sort of thing, I guess. Still, for any hard-sf fan, Distress, and Egan’s work in general: Two Thumbs Up!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

3 responses to “SF: Distress by Greg Egan

  • Lady from Manila

    I wish I had the time to read novels that captivate my interest – like the ones you mentioned above – as I used to read a lot of fiction in my teen-age years (ok, most of them juvenile romance. he he).

    I hold this opinion the best sci-fi authors are some kind of geniuses. Writing in that genre entails massive doses of creativity, not to mention they also have to take into account a lot of scientific facts.

    And perhaps this is the appropriate post where I can release my notion that there surely are several life forms that exist somewhere in the universe. But I am certain they are made of something that’s beyond what our Earth’s physics can identify or define. I’ve thought of inhabitants of a planet that might be made of pure gas, or plain liquid, or something totally different. Alien movies that depict creatures from other galaxies looking like us – with a face, two eyes, a mouth, two arms, two feet – are often comically absurd (why do they always look ugly and seem to have light rubber skin? :-)). But I understand Spielberg just had to come up with something we could relate with physically.

    It seems to me this post lends force, as well, to the verity of science being more durable and constant than religion.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You touch on part of what I love about science fiction. It’s everything regular fiction is, plus that extra element of creativity. Makes ordinary fiction kinda dull!

      Obviously the humanoid aliens are mainly a limitation of special effects technology. Now that CG effects have matured, perhaps we’ll see more alien aliens. (Although movie audiences tend to be fairly ignorant, and filmmakers often do stuff they know is wrong to accommodate that.) Star Trek did once offer an “explanation”: That an ancient race seeded the galaxy with their DNA (part of the premise of the recent movie, Prometheus). That’s why we all look so similar. The “ancient’s did the seeding” is a meme from SF that I’ve seen before.

      I’ve always thought the “Spielberg alien” was kinda goofy (I’m not a Spielberg fan at all). Apparently the premise is that once you advance sufficiently for inter-galactic travel, your bodies evolved into something wimpy and rubbery. (Judging by accounts, you also develop an interest in anal probing… seems a weird activity to fly billions of miles for.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I forgot to touch on your comment about other (real) alien life forms. I agree. I find it ridiculous to think we’re the only intelligent life in the universe!

      (I’m not sure I would agree such life would be beyond our ability to understand. SF authors have explored many realistic (and bizarre) possibilities and so have serious scientists. Given some of the possibilities that SF authors have come up with, I think we’ll be able to recognize alien life.)

      ((There is a linguistics-based idea I’ve heard that the New World natives would literally have not seen the huge wooden European sailing vessels off their shores, because their language had no word or concept for them. I find that hard to believe! They may have had no idea what it was, but I’m pretty certain they wouldn’t have failed to notice them.))

      Anyway! There is Drake’s Equation that starts with the vast number of stars and pares it down and down (some percentage have planets, some percentage of those have planets in habitable zones, some percentage of those,….etc). The point of the equation is that, even with very small fractions at each step, you still end up with a hell of a lot of planets with intelligent life.

      Recently I’ve read that current thinking is that Drakes Equation may have been optimistic even with tiny fractions. More realistically (given all the things that have to go right to evolve intelligent life), it may be that there are only one or two intelligent species per galaxy.

      Now, the thing is, a space-faring race could colonize a galaxy in about 100,000 to 200,000 years time using technology we know or can guess at. That may sound like a long time, but the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, so it’s really not that long. Our galaxy is at least twice that, if not three times. So one wonders where the aliens are?

      If indeed there are only one or two per galaxy, we may be effectively alone in the universe, since travel between galaxies is probably out of reach of any civilization.

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