The Sixth Sense, Distress

Word count: 22,912

Sometimes, everything comes together at the end in a way you never saw coming, even though you saw the hints and you knew that they were hints. I just saw “The Sixth Sense” tonight, and I was blown away. I’m sure everyone else on the planet has seen it already; besides, I don’t know what to say about books or movies that are good.

The Greeks thought that the highest art was the drama, acted live on a stage. In principle I believe that, especially when I see M. Night Shyamalan movies. In practice, however, the novel is still my favorite art form. I go through periods when I think I’ve read all the good writers and there’s nothing left out there. Some books cannot be topped - no one is ever going to beat The Lord of the Rings at its own game. Tolkien was the sort of mad medieval throwback Oxford don genius who should have died in the Great War with the rest of his generation, but didn’t. Whether or not you like JRR, you have to admit that no one is going to create another Middle Earth with six or seven original languages and write poetry in them. Tolkien was a human vacuum fluctuation out of which an entire universe was born.

Last time I read Greg Egan, I enjoyed him despite the science and math overdose. This time I was blown away - there are still good writers out there, waiting to be read. Distress is about tabloids, politics, anarchists, intimacy, gender, isolationism, solipsism, autism, disease, bioengineering, physics, metaphysics, ethics, the eye of the observer, and the Australian psyche. The topics glide in and out of one another in the eyes of a jaded Aussie journalist whose videocamera is in his navel.

Like The Sixth Sense, Distress fooled me for most of the book into thinking it was just your average sci-fi adventure. There were themes, and I saw them and knew that they were themes. I was even sorry that one of them wasn’t more central, and then I reached the end and found out that it was more central than I could ever have imagined.

I admire Ayn Rand for writing novels in which she brought her philosophy to life, and Distress is a book that gives scientific materialism a name and a habitation. I’m surprised that it wasn’t even nominated for a Hugo or Nebula (as far as I can tell). The theme of materialism (that is, that there is nothing but matter in man and in the universe - no gods, no souls, no external meaning) is such a common one in science fiction that you would think that a novel which did for materialism what Rand did for objectivism would become the cult classic that Atlas Shrugged is.

Instead, it seems to have turned some people off, including the person who made this list of math-fiction. I guess materialism is all well and good until someone illustrates it a little too vividly.

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