In 2975, the orphan Yatima is grown from a randomly mutated digital mind seed in the conceptory of Konishi polis. Yatima explores the Coalition of Polises, the network of computers where most life in the solar system now resides, and joins a friend, Inoshiro, to borrow an abandoned robot body and meet a thriving community of “fleshers” in the enclave of Atlanta.
Twenty-one years later, news arrives from a lunar observatory: gravitational waves from Lac G-1, a nearby pair of neutron stars, show that the Earth is about to be bathed in a gamma-ray flash created by the stars’ collision — an event that was not expected to take place for seven million years. Yatima and Inoshiro return to Atlanta to try to warn the fleshers, but meet suspicion and disbelief. Some lives are saved, but the Earth is ravaged.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the survivors resolve to discover the cause of the neutron stars’ premature collision, and they launch a thousand polises into interstellar space in search of answers. This diaspora eventually reaches a planet subtly transformed to encode a message from an older group of travellers: a greater danger than Lac G-1 is imminent, and the only escape route leads beyond the visible universe.
By the year 2975, humanity has wandered down several widely divergent evolutionary paths. "Flesher" life is that which resides in a basically human body, though genetically engineered mutations have created communication problems throughout the species. In the "polises," meanwhile, disembodied but self-aware artificial intelligences procreate, interact, make art and attempt to solve life's mathematical mysteries. Then there are the "gleisners," which are conscious, flesher-shaped robots run by self-aware software that is linked directly to the physical world through hardware. Throughout, Egan (Distress) follows the progress of Yatima, an orphan spontaneously generated by the non-sentient software of the Konishi polis. Yatima gains self-awareness, meets with Earthly fleshers and, when tragedy strikes, becomes personally involved in the greatest search for species survival ever undertaken. Though the novel often reads like a series of tenuously connected graduate theses and lacks the robust drama and characterizations of good fiction, fans of hard SF that incorporates higher mathematics and provocative hypotheses about future evolution are sure to be fascinated by Egan's speculations.