Greg Egan – Permutation City (1994)

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  • Genre: Science fiction
  • Pages: 310
  • My rating: 7/10

When I wrote a review of Yuval Noah Harari’s nonfiction book Homo Deus, I said that science fiction often does not show how future tech might sneak into our lives gradually. Instead, science fiction creates its energy from the shock effect between the now and the then, and invites us to speculate how things came to be that way. But Harari makes us see what steps lie in between. But here we have writer Greg Egan, and he does take up that challenge to show how the strangest ideas might become part of our lives. He wrote the ultimate book about simulating virtual life and uploading human minds into computers, and explores very deeply all the psychological and societal consequences of such a technology.

But do we come out with our minds blown as well?

First, what makes this book so ultimate about the topic? We follow the story of a man, Paul Durham, who had himself scanned and wakes up as a program in a virtual world. In communication with his real-life version, they test out features of virtual life. All of Paul’s existential dread as a copy is part of the story, along with deeper questions of what is consciousness and how does it keep holding up as part of a simulation. I started off talking about a nonfiction book because Greg Egan’s book is so heavy on the speculative side, or hard-sf side, that it is closer to a philosophy book about a computing and consciousness than an actual novel.

As a novel, it doesn’t work well. There is almost no story, and no tension to speak of. Especially when the second character Maria is busy designing virtual life, I started skipping paragraphs as Egan goes over all the small details of Maria’s work. Whole conversations and whole chapters are nothing but explanation, with small interludes that push the story forward. I started to get bored.

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Things start to get weird when Paul and Paul discover that when the computation of Paul (the Copy) is paused, delayed or scrambled out of sequence, the Copy still experiences a normal stream of consciousness. Egan tries to explain something called dust theory, which states that consciousness is a computed pattern that keeps assembling itself from patterns in the universe, but disconnected from cause and effect. In short, an afterlife for a simulated mind, which, after the computer shuts down, keeps assembling itself but merging with another version of the universe in which it is still running. In the words of Terry Pratchett: “Because of quantum.”

Egan can put down interesting characters and we see glimpses of that between the explanations of computation. But on the whole his novel is rather uneven. The weight is so much on the technical details, and the explanations are sometimes unrealistic because people simply don’t talk to each other like that. And at other times he rushes through some really important points that are essential for understanding the plot, like the dust theory. Compared to his later novels like Diaspora, Permutation City felt strangely stretched out and lacked a compelling storyline.

Still, it has to be said that Egan goes above and beyond all other SF authors to blow our minds with futuristic ideas. It’s even more impressive when you realize that this book was published in 1994, four years before The Matrix. When people were still trying to wrap their minds around that film, Egan was 20 steps ahead. Even now, two decades later, only a few authors have plumbed the depths the way he did.

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