Egan: Zendegi

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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

20 responses to “Egan: Zendegi

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Egan has a website with supplemental materials for his books. Zendegi doesn’t have the complicated math or unusual physics that many of his books do, so there isn’t much in this case, but there is a Zendegi page.

    Most of it involves his trip to Iran in 2008. It’s an interesting read; I recommend it. Some of the photos are amazing. There is also an excerpt from the novel, a key scene from early in the book.

  • Michael

    Looks interesting! I will put it on the list!

    I’ve just started The This by Adam Roberts. You ever read any of his sci fi? Not sure if this would be your thing or not… Hmmm… I think I need to get farther into it. But he writes really well!

    Egan will be my next sci fi when I get back to it later in the year…

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’ve never heard of Adam Roberts until now. I looked him up on Wikipedia, and he has quite a few books out. He seems to like writing parodies. I’ll keep him in mind. (As I may have mentioned, I have a long reading queue. Currently 48 books just in the library app.)

      I’m certain you’d like Zendegi. I’m less certain you’d find much of Egan’s other work your cuppa, but maybe. The extreme would be something like his Orthogonal series, which even I didn’t entirely take to (but was glad I read; I’d been wanting to explore the unusual, very mathematical, physics he came up with for that story). One of the first of his I read, Incandescence, (which hooked me but might not be so engaging to others) is about a race of aliens living inside a rock in orbit around a black hole. Much of the story is about how they discover General Relativity via a completely different path than the one we used. It’s also an education on orbital dynamics; I learned a lot!

  • Matti Meikäläinen

    Wyrd,

    I totally agree with your minor annoyance. It is indeed a trivial and hackneyed expression to announce that a piece of literature is about what it means to be human. What it means to be human is the proper concern of all literature, not just science fiction. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about what it means to be human—as is history and philosophy and, in fact, all the humanities. I tend to over rely on the expression the human condition myself. I think when either expression is used to describe a bit of writing it is an unthinking attempt to say this writing does a particularly good job of examining what it means to be human.

    And I also agree that science fiction has unique abilities as a literary genre. It is able to focus on (sorry!) what it means to be human from novel or inventive perspectives, forcing the characters into unique cultural and ethical testing situations. I find, if the work is done well, that I gain insight into moral boundaries and dilemmas I didn’t have before. It seems like this novel may do that for me. I’ve never read this author’s work. I’ll put it on my “to read” list. Thanks.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, exactly. The phrase is motivated, as you say, by work that especially (or especially well) addresses our humanity, so it’s just a code phrase, but those code phrases are the very ones that I think it’s good focus on once in a while. They become invisible and thoughtless — rote. Creativity requires stirring the pot.

      I wouldn’t recommend most of Egan’s work for the average reader (and there are some I wouldn’t recommend for the average SF reader), but Zendegi doesn’t require the background knowledge and experience with science fiction or science tropes that nearly all hard SF does. It’s kind of an unusual work for Egan. (On several levels. His stories usually assume machine consciousness is trivial and ubiquitous.) He was struck by his nation’s treatment of Iranian refugees, got to know some of them, and (I think) connected with them on a deep emotional level. Zendegi seems the fruit of that. He even made his first trip outside Australia to visit Iran.

      I think Zendegi would be accessible and enjoyable to any reader and certainly anyone who reads science fiction. In an all-around sense, it just might be one of his best novels. His short stories are also a good place to get to know him. His website has a page with links to some available online. The very first work of his I read, a short story called Riding the Crocodile, is on his website. (That one is typical Egan.)

  • Anonymole

    Until rats or raccoons evolve into tech-wielding beings, all stories, even AI stories written by AI will be anthropocentric.

    I have a friend (I have one friend and he’s it) who says, “I don’t like reading stories about aliens or artificial intelligence.” I remind him that humans wrote those stories, so they can’t help but be all about humanity — regardless of the narrative delivery agent.

    That’s always my argument when folks dis SciFi/Fantasy: “They’re all about love, hate, joy, misery, surrender and conquest — told through interesting, counter-mundane settings.”

    I live a mundane life. Why the hell would I want to read about this world and its traffic, work, school, healthcare, cops, criminals, politics, news and same utter sameness—as my everyday life? Screw that. I hate this fuckin’ life.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ah, Amigo, I wish you could find some joy in life, as well. I agree and live with much of what you say, especially about reading material, but I’ve found a Yang to the Yin of “this fuckin life.” (Music, math, physics, programming, puppies, craft beer and burgers, good stories,… and a lot more.)

      I’ve made the same arguments about science fiction. It’s just as good (or, 90% of the time, per Sturgeon, as bad) as mundane fiction, but, you know,… way better (because imagination, new worlds, new beings, new stuff).

      And, yeah, it’s often about escape. For me, it’s escape from the stupid and a chance to recognize other intelligent minds, many of them far above mine (Egan being a good example). Makes me feel not so alone in the world!

      • Anonymole

        Yeah, sorry ’bout that.

        SciFi does feel like a kind of club. You mention the preference to anyone who agrees and you have an instant bond.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, no need for sorry; I’m just sad for you. I wish joy and laughter for you!

        That’s so true. Especially if it turns out you both have the same tastes and favorite authors. It’s pretty cool that way.

        I’ve given up now, but I used to try to turn adults on to science fiction (starting with my dad). Zero success. For a long time, my theory was that you needed to discover SF early while your mind was still open to that level of imagination. Over time I decided it was just that some people have minds open that way and some don’t. Those that do usually glom onto SF early — hence the perception I originally had.

        Then Lucas came along, and now just about everyone thinks they’re a science fiction fan. (Hint: Nope.)

    • Matti Meikäläinen

      Anonymole,

      You might want to use a more subtle approach on your friend. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that “…man is in his actions and practice … essentially a story-telling animal. He is … a teller of stories that aspire to truth.” In short, narrative is the way we come to grips with what Kant described as one of the three big questions of life: How shall I act? (I’m trying hard to avoid saying the human condition or what it’s like to be human.) As MacIntyre puts it: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question; of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

      As MacIntyre says; “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. … Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things. …The telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues.”

      In a way narrative is more straightforward than philosophy. I think I really understood this when I read bedtime stories to my little girl.

      • Anonymole

        Subtle. Yeah, I’m all about being subtle. Nice quotes. I don’t even think I could quote Dr. Seuss, my brain doesn’t work like that (when it works at all).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Storytelling and the power of narrative is one of my favorite topics. Storytelling is a quintessentially human behavior. Our personal autobiographical history is little more than a narrative we constantly grow and reenforce.

        It’s a deep and rich approach to the imperatives of narrative that makes Terry Pratchett my all-time favorite author. Only Pratchett would have his characters discussing that a “million-to-one chance” is guaranteed to succeed because of narrative imperative (but it has to be a million-to-one to work, so they had to add difficulty to the effort).

        What you said about children and stories (oh, so true) reminded me of one of my favorite bits from Pratchett: Fairy tales don’t tell kids about monsters. Kids already know there are monsters in the world. What fairy tales do is tell kids that monsters can be killed. (That’s a bit from DEATH’s grand-daughter, Susan. See this post if completely puzzled.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I remember reading about Zendegi a while back, but had much the same reaction to the description you did. My enjoyment of Egan is more intermittent than yours, so not sure how drawn in I am. But definitely something to keep in mind.

    As someone who recently used the “what it means to be human” phrase, I’m surprised you guys find it objectionable. Sure, literary classics may explore humanity, but I don’t know of any that have conditions where people might argue whether it is or isn’t human. When I use the phrase, it’s usually to refer to posthuman or modified human concepts, or in something like Quest for Fire, prehuman ones, or the overall direction of humanity. (If The Brothers Karamazov explores stuff like that, I probably need to pick up a copy.) Is there a less objectionable phrase?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Zendegi, for me, was a good reminder about not judging a book by its cover (or blurb). It has happened to me enough times you’d think I wouldn’t need the reminder, but… 🤷🏼‍♂️

      I think you’d like it, but it’s a plain old human story enough that personal taste definitely is a factor. That could go either way with anyone. I do think you’d enjoy the Nasim side of the story, her initial efforts with zebra finch vocal tract simulation and her later ones with side-loading. And in general, the brain and VR stuff. On balance, I’d recommend it to you.

      Don’t read too much into “a minor annoyance” about what I just see as an overused and overly generic phrase. As I said in the post, it’s not wrong so much as trivially true. If all fiction is about the human condition, certainly all science fiction is, and as I said, “science fiction has a unique ability to contrast WiMtbH with self-aware intelligent entities who aren’t human.” It’s a spectrum. The Brothers Karamazov may be on one end, but something like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is a bit more along that spectrum.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Yeah, I’ve had a few case like that myself, of discovering something I avoided was pretty good. But I’ve read the book description and even the beginning of the Amazon preview, and neither were drawing me in.

        Although I do appreciate the recommendation. I’ll keep it in mind. Maybe at some point I’ll be in the right frame of mind for it.

        Thanks for clarifying on the wording thing. I’ve never actually tackled The Brother Karamazov or The Metamorphosis. I doubt I ever will. The first sounds too long and preoccupied with faith struggles to interest me, and the second, while much shorter, has always sounded like the most depressing thing imaginable.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Assuming that preview came from Part 1, set in 2012, I can see it not being much of a draw. I wasn’t really drawn in until the Part 2, which jumps to 2027. (Egan wrote the book in 2009 and worried people wouldn’t believe the part about an uprising in 2012, but reality shortly after he left Iran made that part very real.) What kept me reading was the Nasim thread, her work with zebra finch vocal tract simulation was interesting. But I kept wondering where the beef (SF) was for that first 300 pages and did question how much I wanted to keep reading.

        My recommendation certainly isn’t unqualified. I think, if you got past Part 1, you’d find the bulk of the book engaging, but I can’t guarantee it. I can say that if your being intermittent about Egan is related to how hard his SF is, that won’t be a problem here. No math, and his tech here I found all very believable.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It kind of sounds like if I do read it, it might be better to skip Part 1, at least initially. That’s a strategy I’ve used before. Although it used to be easier when we were thumbing through physical books in bookstores and could randomly select pages to read. Unfortunately the online previews are typically only the first 10% of the book, which has dramatically increased the importance of that 10%.

        Writers have long regarded beginnings as crucial, and usually work to make them enticing, so much so that I think they often don’t make them an accurate promise of what’s in the book. When they are accurate promises, the 10% system works. But it can make uptake of a book that takes too long to get to the good stuff difficult.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        If that works for you, then, yeah, that might be a good tactic. It would be foreign to me; I’d be afraid I’d miss some important bit or clue. There definitely is stuff in Part 1 that informs Part 2. Nasim’s work would be a big one. But it might work if you don’t might some holes.

        Beginnings are very crucial in many things: movies, songs, even relationships (the whole “first impressions” thing). Obviously, with narrative art, it’s grabbing the audience and getting them to sit still for the whole thing. That said, there are works (even musically) that are slow burning to begin with. No doubt you’ve read novels that take forever to get going (I remember that really striking me with Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising.) We’re fast-paced and even impatient these days, so slow-burners may struggle. I’m by no means immune to being impatient; I felt that a bit during Part 1 (but I was ultimately glad I stuck it out on that one; isn’t always the case).

        As we’ve touched on before, my nemesis as far as getting impatient with writing is when there is over much detail or too much inner churning in the middle of a dynamic sequence (even a conversation qualifies). That can drive me absolutely nuts.

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