Fiction Reviews

Permutation City

(1994/2008) Greg Egan, Gollancz, 7.99, pbk, 377pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08207-6


Paul Durham seeks a perfect sanctuary and that sanctuary might come courtesy of the developing area of computer science in the form of cyberspace. But it is early days and cyberspace is far from perfect. Plenty of room for improvement then? And so the technology continues to develop. Finally Paul can begin to realise his dream of transferring his mind into a computer environment. But with each advance in the hardware and software, there come ethical problems and a mis-match with those living real life. Others too are interested and so an almost inevitable progression commences from the cyberspace's first virtual human pioneers through to whole communities of the real and artificial that themselves develop...

The above is the plot premise for Permutation City. By rights I should be giving you more but really any more would constitute a spoiler. Suffice to say that while John Brunner gave us the internet (and computer viruses ('phages')) with The Shockwave Rider (1975) and William Gibson gave us cyberspace with the short 'Burning Chrome' (1982) and novel Neuromancer (1984) as a place we can visit and which may be inhabited by AI's, Greg Egan gave us cyberspace as another form of 'reality' (as distinct from Gibsonian artificial reality).

Now, you would be forgiven for not realising just what a ground-breaking novel Permutation City was. It is now nearly one and a half decades on from when it first came out, and so it must have been written in 1993. Back then the internet in the UK was little more than Super-JANET and so the average SF reader would have been unaware of problems such as lack of bandwidth slowing down programs. Today we are all more computer-savy albeit through the mundanety of being mass computer-tech consumers as opposed to any real understanding of the underpinning science and technology. (How many of us could actually build a simple computer from scratch (from transistors, capacitors, resistors etc.)?) Yet much of Permutation City still speaks to us today. As such it is one of those SF novels that enables the genre to interact with real-world science and technology development. Thank goodness Gollancz have reprinted Permutation City as part of their 2008 re-branding of Egan.

Jonathan Cowie

Other of Egan's works with stand-alone reviews on this site include: Distress (and 2nd review), Diaspora, Incandescence (and 2nd review), Luminous (and 2nd review) , Quarantine, Schild’s Ladder (and 2nd review) and Teranesia.

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