"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)
"He gestured at the screen, and the ball of twine exploded, sending brilliant loops arching out into the darkness in all directions. 'The Keystone is, at the very least, armed with a TOE [Theory of Everything], and aware of both vis [sic] existence, and a canonical body of observations and experimental results - whether vis [sic) own, or 'second hand' - which need to be accounted for. If we lacked either the information density or organizational schema to explain vis [sic] own existence self-consistently, the whole event would be sub-critical: there'd be no universe implied. But given a sufficiently rich Aleph, the process won't stop until an entire physical cosmos is created."
I know, I know. Let that sink in for a while, and get back to me. No one's going to get there all at once, and anyone who says they have is probably mistaken.
Greg Egan is an Australian computer programmer and writer of science fiction. He's somewhat famous for being one of the harder hard science fiction writers out there, and he's won several awards for his books. One of his other books, Permutation City, has also been reviewed here.
In Distress a journalist is assigned to cover a physics conference in the year 2050. This particular physics conference has attracted a lot of attention because at least three of its keynote (or should I say keystone?) speakers have claimed to have discovered a Theory of Everything (TOE) which will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos. Little do these speakers know that a fringe group of cosmologists has targeted each and every one of them for assassination, hoping to avert the end of everything.
As novels go it's damn slow, and it just didn't blow my mind the way Permutation City did. The protagonist is by turns irritating and slow on the uptake, and none of the situations in which he finds himself are remotely interesting. About halfway through the book I started to actively wish for his death, and the threatened end of the world began to seem like a satisfying way to end this novel.
As much as I loved Permutation City, I think it's in Distress that Greg Egan reveals his weakness as a writer. He's good with big, sweeping, mind-numbing ideas - the kind of ideas that held center stage in Permutation City - but very weak with regard to creating interesting characters and putting them in dramatic situations. And instead of going with his strength as a writer, the kind of philosophical/technological/scientific ideas which should have been at the heart of this story, he decided to populate this novel with a host of unlikable and uninteresting people, all loosely joined together by a subplot that would make most people laugh if you explained it to them.
So yeah, this book is boring... but I won't hold it against the author. If the only thing he'd ever written was Permutation City, that alone would be enough to put him up there with authors like Asimov and Clarke. I'm also fairly certain that he's written other, better books than Distress. Every author's allowed his or her occasional duds, and it was just my bad luck to have chosen Distress out of Egan's bibliography.
"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)
"The Windup Girl" by Paulo Bacigalupi (2009)
"Mission of Gravity" by Hal Clement (1954)
"R.U.R. and War with the Newts" by Karl Capek (1920 and 1936)