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Peter D. Tillman is a mining geologist with two previous fiction sales and many professional and technical publications. He's lived in Arizona for the past twenty years.


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Distress
by Greg Egan
Harper Mass Market Paperbacks. 464 pages.
Rating: A+
Reviewed by Peter D. Tillman

I think I'll dispense with the plot summary this time -- if you like Egan, you've read a review or two by now. If not, visit "Naddy" Weisgerber's review or Evelyn Leeper's review.
What I'll try to convey instead (since the reviews I've seen didn't) is a sense of the richness and density of invention here. Egan is one of our very best, and he's playing the hard-sf game with a taut net and a wicked backhand:

    A spasm passed thru the victim's body. A temporary pacemaker was forcing his damaged heart to beat -- operating at power levels that would poison every cardiac muscle fiber with electrochemical by-products, in 15 or 20 minutes at the most. Pre-oxygenated ersatz blood was being fed to his heart's left atrium, in lieu of a supply from the lungs, pumped thru the body once only, then removed via the pulmonary arteries and discarded. An open system was less trouble than recirculation, in the short term. The half-repaired knife wounds in his abdomen and torso made a mess, leaking thin scarlet fluid into the drainage channels of the operating table ....
It's 2055. Reporter Andrew Worth is covering the temporary revival of a murder victim:
    His expression shifted rapidly; through the pain there was a sudden flash of pure astonishment, then an almost amused comprehension of the full strangeness -- and maybe even the perverse virtuosity -- of the feat to which he'd been subjected. For an instant, he really did look like someone admiring a brilliant, vicious, bloody practical joke ....

    Then Daniel Cavolini ... began to scream. I watched as they pumped him full of morphine, and waited for the revival drugs to finish him off.

    My pharm programmed a small skin patch on my shoulder to release carefully-timed and calibrated doses of melatonin, or a melatonin- blocker -- adding to, or subtracting from, the usual biochemical signal produced by my pineal gland ... I woke up every morning from 5 hours of enriched REM sleep, as wide-eyed and energetic as a hyperactive child ... I wouldn't so much as yawn until 11:45, but 15 minutes later, I'd go out like a light ... I'd tried caffeine a few times; it made me believe I was focused and energetic, but it turned my judgement to shit. Widespread use of caffeine explained a lot about the 20th century ....

    When we undressed and fell into bed together, and my vision lurched, I thought it was just a side-effect of passion. When my arms went numb, I realized what was happening ... Stricken, I said, "I don't believe this. I'm sorry." I forced myself to concentrate; I reached over and hit a button on the pharm. "Give me half an hour."
    "No. Safety limits --"
    "Fifteen minutes," I pleaded. This is an emergency..."
    "There is no emergency. You're safe in bed..."

And we're only up to page 43! What more can I say? This is clearly an essential book, and much superior to his 1994 book, Permutation City.

Distress is a look at Vinge's Singularity from a very different perspective. Egan's imagination never flags: a constant flow of ideas, rich and strange, layered in baroque complexity. Half a dozen places where the hair rose up on the back of my neck ... I don't know about you folks, but this is why I keep reading this stuff.
What are you waiting for?


For more information on Greg Egan, visit Egan's personal home page or Philipp Keller's nicely-done fan page.