(2010) Greg Egan, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 332pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08618-0
It is the very-near future: 2012. A journalist, Martin, is in Iran covering the election. This event itself has at its heart political skulduggery with opposition politicians being harassed, disqualified and thwarted at every turn. Iran's public is disillusioned but there is a sizable vocal resistance. Martin in the midst of it all is busy, and becomes all the more so when he investigates a compromising picture taken of a politician.
Meanwhile in the US, Nasim is a young scientist who is also the daughter of an Iranian political dissident who was executed. She is working on the human connectome project that aims to chart a detailed neural map of the human brain. This project is controversial not least because some consider it to be an attempt to perfect a way of capturing, or creating, a human soul, while others view it as a possible gateway to a kind of immortality. However it is expensive and funding is hard to come by.
Fifteen years later and separately both Martin and Nasim are in Iran. Martin has married an Iranian and Nasim – unable to secure a place with the human connectome project – is working for a firm that creates virtual world games. Here one in particular is fairly successful and that is Zendegi. Nasim realises that the skills she acquired at the connectome project can be used to help make the virtual world's artificial characters more realistic.
Martin's wife dies but he still has the son he had with her. Later he discovers that he is ill and that he too will die. Martin wants to leave something of himself to help guide his son as he grows up. This desire brings him to Nasim…
Zendegi works a familiar Egan theme: it approaches the question of developing the ability for human uploading into a cyberspace virtual world. Here Egan fans might be think back to his 1994 novel Permutation City, but Zendiegi approaches this topic very differently indeed. Permutation City was a minor classic, its only problem for greater SFnal longevity was that real-life computer simulations and public familiarity with the internet (unknown except to academics and some geeks back in 1994) meant that that novel became dated after about a decade. Conversely Zendegi is a less hard SF, sense-of-wonder read. This may disappoint some of Egan's regulars but Zendegi's characters and the novel's background are far better drawn. Having said that in the distance we can see where things might be going, not least the potential for artificial super-intelligence, human copy uploading and the resulting consequences and social impacts that this technology might bring. In short, the book leaves the hard SF reader begging for a sequel: yet sequel writing is something for which Egan is not commonly known. Even so, I for one hope that Egan leaves Nasim and her efforts for a few years, give it some thought, and then do the follow-up novel. That really would be quite something for Zendegi, among other things, is a tantalising peek around the curtain into a fascinating possible future. What is undeniable is that in the real world human diagnostic imaging (with things like NMR) is moving forward in leaps and bounds, as is also: computing power; new possible computing techniques (such as quantum computing and also entanglement abilities); as well as synaptic cellular biology. It is therefore quite likely that somewhere along the line in the not too distant future, with synergies between these areas, we really are going to have to face the sorts of questions that Egan addresses. This for me is one of the reasons why the SF genre is so exciting.
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