It describes the political intrigue surrounding a mid-twenty-first century physics conference, at which is to be presented a unified Theory of Everything. In the background of the story is an epidemic mental illness, related in some way to the imminent discovery of the TOE. The action takes place on an artificial island called "Stateless", which has earned the wrath of the world's large biotech companies for its pilfering of their intellectual property. The novel contains a great deal of satirical commentary on gender identities, multinational capitalism, and postmodern thought. It also features Egan's usual playful exploration of physical, metaphysical, and epistemological theories.
Egan uses his hypothetical future to postulate the existence of not just one but five new genders, and for illustration or perhaps just literary clarity's sake introduces a highly useful set of new pronouns to designate each one. One of the central characters of the novel, Akili Kuwale, provides a brilliant demonstration of this change and its implications, together with excellent characterization. As an asexual human, Akili has had all reproductive organs removed entirely, distinct from hermaphrodites who possess both. Within the scope of the novel, Egan uses the pronouns 've', 'ver', and 'vis' to represent Akili's definitive gender neutrality, a literary move seen in few, if any, other works of fiction or nonfiction.