Greg Egan is among my favorite science fiction authors. He especially stands out to me if I limit the field to authors currently writing. Egan might not be a working scientist, but he has a degree in mathematics and his work is known in that field. His math and physics background shine brightly in his science fiction writing and that light is why I like his stories so much. I love hard SF most, and Egan delivers the goods.
I just finished his 2010 novel, Zendegi. There have been some recent disappointments from my reading list (including the last Egan story I read), so it’s nice to read a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and find worth posting about.
Zendegi is about what it means to be human…
Let’s stop and take a moment to examine what has become a minor annoyance for me. That phrase. It’s liberally slathered over science fiction, and while it’s not wrong, I see it as trivially true. All fiction is about what it means to be human.
At least until AI starts writing sellable stories, and then we might see fiction that’s about what it means to be metal (and plastic with a bit of purified sand).
But if a human wrote the story, then it’s about what it means to be human.
Granted, some stories are more trivially about WiMtbH while others dig more deeply into the nuances, but I still dislike the emptiness of the phrase. It’s like saying, “Well, that’s interesting.” A trivial truth with no substance or real meaning.
[Everything is interesting. If something truly wasn’t interesting,… well, wouldn’t that in itself be interesting?]
What’s usually meant is that science fiction has a unique ability to contrast WiMtbH with self-aware intelligent entities who aren’t human. Typically, aliens or computers, but also new states of being for humans — many SF stories are about humans evolving into a new form. (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series is an outstanding entry on that list.)
It’s that extra degree of freedom science fiction has that is why the bulk of my fiction reading is science fiction. As I’ve said many times, after six decades of stories and personal experience, I don’t find much new in the realm of ordinary human experience. No surprises (and so much disappointment). This is why ordinary fiction often bores me. I’ve heard it all before. Many, many times.
One characteristic of much of Egan’s science fiction is the assumption of computational consciousness (minds in computers) and of brain uploading (so your mind can live in a computer). I’ve always thought Egan does these stories well (see Permutation City, for one example).
I like the detail Egan provides as foundation for why this stuff works (or might someday work). As with all hard SF, explanation of future technology is a crucial component of the story. It does require some balance, some humanity, to make the story engaging and fun to read. (I recently read his Orthogonal trilogy and found the balance a bit off there.)
One thing I found intriguing about Zendegi is that it’s a story about the very earliest days of humanity’s attempts to upload human minds into computers. [SPOILER] Even more interesting in light of Egan’s other work: We fail!
At times I wondered if Egan was possibly repudiating his earlier work a bit, but the book’s arc, I think, is more about the difficulty. It seems clear he believes the goal is reachable (albeit challenging). The last line of the novel is:
If you want to make it human, make it whole.
It’s a reference to the need to upload or re-create the whole brain. Partial functional doesn’t cut it. (As I’ve long said, the brain is a holistic mechanism; every part matters.)
One aspect of Zendegi slightly raised the bar for my reading it. My library app (Libby), describing the book, starts off:
Set in a near future Iran (where the theocracy has been overthrown, but where Muslim religion still dominates the culture), an Arab/Muslim focused MMORG gaming companies cutting edge AI software might hold the key achieving “uploaded consciousness.”
Iran?! Hmmm. I wasn’t sure how much I was going to like a book set in Iran. Nothing against any nationality. It’s more the setting of a theocracy (even if overthrown) and the tension, conflict, and strife, of the human situation. Not an angst I wanted to jump into.
The blurb continues:
Martin is an Australian journalist who covered uprising and overthrow of the Iranian theocracy, and has since “gone native” with a Iranian wife and child. As tragedy strikes his multi-cultural family, Martin struggles to maintain his place in his adapted culture, and to provide for his child.
Wait. “…with a Iranian wife…” This on a library app’s website. Oops! I wonder if the text originally said “…with a wife…” and then someone added “Iranian” and didn’t proofread. I’ve introduced some typos myself that way.
The blurb ends with:
Zendigi explores what it means to be human, and the lengths one will go to in order to provide for ones children. This emotional roller coaster explores a non-Western-European near future that both challenges ideas of global mono-culture and emphasizes the humanity we all share.
Yeah, that phrase again, but it’s not wrong. As I said, it’s always trivially true in fiction, but stories like Zendegi dig a lot deeper into the options and possibilities.
I’m no longer cutting any slack for “…with a Iranian wife…” — not when they misspell the name of the book. (And it’s “…one’s children.”) Whatever happened to our sense of precision?
Anyway, the Iranian aspects turned out to be one of the more engaging parts of the book and alone reason I’d recommend it. Egan spent two weeks in Iran — his first ever trip out of his native Australia — and it seems to have been time well-spent. I’ll say again the book is worth reading just for the Iranian context.
The story has two main protagonists, Martin Seymour, a journalist, and Nasim Golestani, an Iranian computer scientist. Martin, assigned to cover the 2012 Iranian parliamentary elections, finds love and stays in Iran. Nasim is initially living in the United States (having fled there with her mother after her father was killed by VEVAK). She is involved with the Human Connectome Project (HCP). Her work involves using thousands of brain scans of zebra finches to create a simulated vocal tract capable of producing unique zebra finch songs. (She succeeds, but congress defunds their project.)
This is all in the book’s first part, in 2012, which weighs in at about 300 pages (in my e-book version). It sets up the characters and context. The second part, about 500 pages, takes place in 2027–2028. Martin lives in Tehran with Mahnoosh, who he met during the protests following the elections. They have a young son, Javeed. Nasim heads a VR gaming company, Zendegi, that’s trying to find a way to survive the intense worldwide competition.
Nasim, recalling her work with zebra finch vocalization, seeks ways to improve the game’s proxies (NPCs). She thinks that, rather than the usual script-generated interactions — which can be thrown off by unexpected input from the players — if she could simulate parts of the brain, the proxies might be able to handle the unexpected.
Her breakthrough comes when she learns of a technique called “side-loading” which allows her to capture the motor skills of Ashkan Azimi, a famous Iranian football player (actual foot ball, not the American invention). She creates Virtual Azimi, which allows a VR game in which players can play alongside (or against) their hero.
WARNING: Slight spoiler in this section! Skip to next to avoid.
Martin and Javeed lose Mahnoosh in a tragic car accident. Javeed, because of a childhood story taken to heart, has an abiding fear of being abandoned by his parents. Losing his mother feeds that fear. Then Martin gets cancer, and his prognosis isn’t good (even in 2027). Knowing what this will do to his son, Martin convinces Nasim (who is related to him through his wife’s family) to try to create a Virtual Martin that can continue to be in his son’s life.
It’s all a bit heart-breaking, because, as I’ve already said, they fail. Nasim does create a Virtual Martin, but when real Martin, acting as his son (to see if it will be the father to Javeed Martin desires), enters the VR to interact with it, he’s appalled to find it not worthy of the task. (It over-reacts to something “Javeed” did wrong. Martin was, in fact, testing it for its reaction. Huge fail.)
Zendegi is, in many ways, the most human of Egan’s stories. Much of it is touching; some of it is even heart-breaking. Once the story took off, I found it hard to put down.
I’ve found that my Wow! – Ah! – Eh! – Meh! – Nah! – Ugh! rating system for movies and TV shows doesn’t seem to work as well for books. I almost never encounter books that rate the extremes, and I’m not even sure what that would look like.
So, I’ll just give Zendegi two thumbs up and a strong recommendation for Egan fans, VR and brain uploading fans, and science fiction fans in general. (Funny how a book one put off reading thinking they might not like it turns out to be one of the better books read recently. An important lesson there, I think.)
As is usually the case with Egan, I enjoy his well-grounded future tech. One thing mentioned only in passing lit a lightbulb for me. I’ve long wondered about shows featuring VR in which mere goggles (or less) seem to capture all the user’s movements. Is that like transporters on Star Trek — a hand-wave to help tell the story?
One phrase in one sentence: terahertz scanner. Ah! Lightbulb. Of course. An array of terahertz scanners in the goggles could capture all parts of the user’s body.
The account of side-loading is pretty interesting, too. It actually sounds as if it would work pretty well. I’ll leave the book to describe it, though.
I’m going to resist the temptation to mention other books I’ve been reading. This post is long enough!
Stay virtual, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.