A Book: Diaspora

Where do we go from here? History can’t guide us. Evolution can’t guide us. The C-Z charter says understand and respect the universe… but in what form? On what scale? With what kind of senses, what kind of minds? We can become anything at all – and that space of possible futures dwarfs the galaxy. Can we explore it without losing our way?

-Greg Egan in Diaspora

Diaspora by Greg Egan

Australian writer Greg Egan has consistently produced some of the most innovative, ambitiously speculative and technically rigorous science fiction stories of the 1990s. As an avid fan of the genre, my opinion is that Egan’s influence in the field goes far beyond what is evident in simple sales volume or media attention since many other writers seem to have taken note of his style and have attempted “Eganesque” stories or novels of their own. With his sixth novel, Diaspora, he probes the future of humanity, going farther than any other writer has ever gone before.

The protagonists of Diaspora may be human, but they are certainly no longer homo sapiens. Rather, they are conscious software, residing in complex, unimaginably powerful computer servers, some of them buried deep beneath the Earth, others scattered across the Solar System, called polises.

They share the thirtieth century with two other descendents of ancient humanity, the gleisners, conscious humanoid robots, and fleshers, biological, flesh and blood humans. Most fleshers have genetically altered their minds and bodies, in many ways becoming beings more alien that even the disembodied polis citizens. These are called exuberants. Ironically, the most dangerous ones are the statics, fleshers who have refused to alter their genes in order to live as “nature” intended. They are thus prey to the full range of natural and all too human paranoias, phobias and irrationalities.

The way Egan chose to open Diaspora has been roundly criticized by most reviewers. He describes the conception of one of the novel’s main characters, the orphan Yatimah. Orphan because ve (Egan’s third-person pronoun for neuter characters) is created by the non-conscious operating system of Konishi polis instead of being designed by sentient citizens, as an experiment.

This section is full of intricate technical detail, from the formulation of the mind seed, a compacted digital version of DNA six billion bits long, to the complex way the seed interacts with the software of the operating system’s “womb”, to the trials of the nascent personality as it processes its first sensory inputs and finally becomes self-aware. While I agree that it is a difficult read, I find it endlessly fascinating, not the least because Egan succeeds in explaining the creation of sentient intelligence in a step-by-step way that is utterly non-magical and non-mysterious. Also, having read many of Egan’s other works, I am tempted to speculate that he perversely made the beginning of the book a challenging trial for the purpose of winnowing out the faint of heart, in effect, daring his readers to give up on the book (read his short stories The Planck Dive and Border Guards for further examples of this technique).

Those who do give up miss out on an incredible journey across space and many dimensions. The main plot deals with an unexpected but natural astrophysical catastrophe that effectively wipes out the fleshers. A group of polis citizens, including Yatimah, shaken by the brutal demonstration that their mastery of the physical sciences is as yet incomplete, resolves to uncover the physics behind the event and to see if it can be prevented. Along their way, they meet aliens who are truly alien, discover profound revelations on the nature of the universe and finally find the answers they seek in another universe altogether.

The plot is admittedly linear to the point of simplicity and the characters are mostly flat, with singular, uncomplicated motives. The entire novel is also episodic, jumping from character to character, even to the clones of the characters, as the situation warrants and revealing only key scenes of the diaspora, instead of being a smoothly continuous narrative. While Egan has certainly sacrificed drama and character development, he makes up for this with sheer density of ideas in a novel of less than 400 pages. Not only is there a lot of it, but the ideas themselves, ranging from those in mathematics and physics, to extraterrestrial biology, philosophy and future esthetics, are often intriguing enough to provide enough food for thought for continued speculation and extrapolation long after the novel proper is finished.

Between the lines of the unassuming plot however, is a more subtle theme, succinctly captured in the quotation above. Given a near infinite ability to become anything we could imagine, what should we in fact do with life? This is highlighted in the cultural differences between the various polises. Konishi polis is dedicated to the study of mathematical truths and as such is one of the most purely solipsistic of the polises: the citizens of Konishi regard the “real” universe as no more inherently deserving of attention and study as arbitrary, virtual universes. Carter-Zimmerman at the other end of the extreme, regards the “real” universe as the only universe worthy of serious study; virtual worlds exist only to assist in the understanding of the “real” universe and for entertainment. There are other polises, briefly presented, Ashton-Laval, another solipsistic polis dedicated to the transient, ephemeral quality of art; Lokhande, where the citizens “rush” (run their minds more slowly relative to outside events so time seems to run faster) so quickly that they watch mountains erode in real time.

Egan skillfully draws the reader into a weave between the worlds of pure solipsism and total engagement with reality. Yatimah starts out as a Konishi citizen and is prepared to spend eternity in the Truth Mines, a virtual world constructed out of mathematical truths and used to explore and discover new truths. However, his first-hand experience of the deaths of the fleshers convinces him of the need to understand more of the “real” universe, if only for self-protection, and so he emigrates to Carter-Zimmerman. The diaspora however soon discovers an alien life- form that challenges the borders between the “real” and the “virtual”. At the same time, the polises that have not joined the diaspora become ever more inward-looking, to the point of almost forgetting about the “real” universe while the citizens of CZ labor to bring them out of their solipsism. Of course, the end of the book, at once triumphant and tragic, makes it clear where Egan’s sympathies lie (hint: Egan has a BSc. in mathematics; he loves the stuff.)

Egan’s prose here is “merely” competent and utilitarian (though he can write more colorful prose when he needs to, witness the chilling short story Worthless). But this masks his acute sense of drama. Egan certainly knows how to subtly evoke the right imagery to manipulate the reader’s emotions, but he prefers to tell you straight out that he doesn’t like doing that. For example, in the scene where Yatimah is seated on a swing with a flesher child on his lap, awaiting the oncoming of the catastrophe, Egan bluntly tells us how some instincts encoded deeply in genes and culture can simply and brutally be wrong. In this case, it is the instinctive sense of hope one feels when seeing the sun emerge from behind a bank of clouds, except that this time, the sunlight brings death.

Accompanied by a very useful glossary and a list of mathematical and physics references, Diaspora is without peer in the field of hard SF with regards to pushing the limits of what is known of the true nature of reality while scrupulously maintaining strict self-consistency. Egan has been accused of wasting the reader’s time with a detailed exposition of a physics system that is fictional. But the entire point of the exercise was to demonstrate how limited our conception of the universe can be and to show how many other ways the universe could have turned out (or may yet turn out) to be. In short, it is a wonderful and exhilarating thought experiment.

I object however to Egan’s treatment of consciousness. Beginning with the conception of the orphan, Egan treats self-awareness as the primary keystone of consciousness, when the scientific consensus today is that it is not. As Steven Pinker writes in How the Mind Works, “Self-knowledge, including the ability to use a mirror, is no more mysterious than any other topic in perception and memory. If I have a mental database for people, what’s to prevent it from containing an entry for myself?” His idea of sentient minds possessing “invariants of consciousness” also does not stand up to scrutiny. Egan would do well to do some additional reading in the neurosciences. It is telling that the two references he lists on the topic of consciousness are Daniel C. Dennett and Marvin Minsky, a philosopher and a mathematician respectively.

These however are relatively minor faults in a science fiction novel and will probably not be noticed by most readers in any case. I consider Diaspora to be a must-read book in hard science fiction, the standard against which other writers attemptng to sketch their own visions of the far future destiny of humanity must strive hard to equal.

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