This was a brilliant book on a lot of levels. It takes some really serious physics that had even me cross-eyes at points, adds gender/sexuality politics and anarchy-syndicalism, and even manages to have a plot in there.
The physics: the plot revolves around a physics conference and the possible revelation of a Theory of Everything, courtesy of (female, African) Nobel Prize winner Violet Mosala. There are people with conflicting theories, and others who – for reasons of their own – don’t necessarily want a Theory of Everything, thankyouverymuch.
Gender/sexuality politics: this is not a world where people pretend that there are only male and female. Instead, there are seven genders: en-male and en-female (what society today would class as ‘normal); asex (which covers a whole spectrum of people, from those who choose to become physically asexual through to those who choose to appear as such to the world); ifem and imale (which sad to say I’ve forgotten what they are!) and ufem and umale (u might stand for ultimate, I’m not sure; I thought of them as the airbrushed and queasy-making sorts you see on body-building magazines). There’s a wonderful section near the start where the main character talks about gender and gender migration as “ninety percent politics,” and that becoming asex in particular is a protest action. It’s really thought-provoking stuff, not least because I think it’s done really neatly and while there is a bit of info-dumping, it is in context and it is relevant to the story – and it’s not preachy, either.
Anarcho-syndicalism: the majority of the book takes place on Stateless, an engineered atoll run on anarcho-syndicalist lines. Which no one in the wider world of politics is very happy about. There’s some quite intriguing discussion of how this works and why the place doesn’t collapse into genuine and destructive anarchy, which – like the gender discussion – mostly feels natural. Frankly, even when it doesn’t I found it so intriguing that I didn’t much care.
The plot: a fairly pedestrian journalist/documentary maker Andrew ends up on Stateless to cover the physics conference and particularly Mosala and her ToE. There are complications: physics-related, political, personal. There are twists and revelations. It’s fast-moving enough that I certainly didn’t get bored; there’s enough character development that I was happy to follow Andrew on his voyage of exploration and discovery, and I liked Mosala too – she’s more complicated than Andrew, and although it might have been interesting to have some of the story from her perspective part of the point of the novel is, I think, the public perception and representation of people.
One of the other things I really liked about Distress is that it is quite Australian. There’s a great bit where Andrew is talking about civil rights, and he mentions a few people who might get annoyed if they were told to avoid generalisations: Dr King, Ms Greer, and Mr Perkins. I would bet there’s a lot of people in Australia, and most outside of it, who wouldn’t get that reference. But Egan doesn’t explain it (which I liked). There’s also a rather bitter section midway through about “Professional Australians,” which sounds like quite the rant against politicians but also perhaps ex-pats who get the job (somehow) of defining Australia to foreigners, full of “a claustrophobic vocabulary of tired nationalist myths.” It also has a rather harsh critique of Young Einstein, which I remember loving but I’m sure the Suck Fairy has visited in full force.