Zendegi

But was she conscious – as much as the women who’d help build her would have been conscious if, for a few seconds, they’d forgotten themselves and focused entirely on their simple tasks: thinking of a word, matching a picture?

Still, at most it could only be a transient form of consciousness – with no conception of itself to underpin a fear of extinction. Splicing Fariba, and a thousand variants of her, into narratives in which they played no active part wouldn’t bolster their fragmentary minds into something more substantial; that was just the illusion that human players would receive. The Faribas would still live – if they lived at all – in an eternal present, doing their simple tasks over and over again, remembering nothing.

– Greg Egan in Zendegi

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Greg Egan’s newest novel, Zendegi, is that it’s the most grounded and hence approachable of any of his books. Inspired by the real-life events in Iran in 2009 and backed by a personal trip that the author made to the country, the book starts out being more of a spy thriller than a hard science-fiction novel. In 2012 as Iran readies itself for a fresh round of parliamentary elections, Australian journalist Martin Seymour makes a break with his previous life as he is sent to cover them. However the elections turn out to be more exciting than anticipated when a scandal involving a member of Iran’s Guardian Council is unearthed, with Martin right in the heart of the events, making news rather than just covering it. This leads to a massive uprising that eventually leads to the reinstatement of true democracy in the country.

In the meantime, Nasim Golestani, daughter of a dissident who was executed in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, now lives and works in the United States as a biologist. She is involved in the Human Connectome Project which aims to create a detailed map of all of the neural connections in the brain. But when the project runs into funding problems and when her mother snags a job with the new Iranian government, Nasim decides to move back to Iran to help in the rebuilding of her homeland.

The novel then flashes forward fifteen years into the future. Martin has settled down in Iran, marrying one of the protest organizers he met and has a child with her. Despite still being an atheist, he has grown roots in the country and has integrated well into the local culture. Nasim, having failed to contribute in any meaningful way to the  new Iran, now works for Zendegi, a popular virtual reality game. Her job is to make the software proxies, AI-controlled characters used to fill out empty spots in games where there aren’t enough human players, realistic and appealing to the paying public.

But of course, things are never so easy, especially in a novel. Zendegi’s future is threatened when better financed rivals moves in on its home market and Nasim realizes that she can use her old skills from the HCP to create proxies that are more realistic than any of her competitors by basing them on real neural maps. As for Martin, his happy life is shattered by a senseless tragedy and he finds himself turning to Nasim to ensure that his son will be brought up in accordance with his ethical values, even if he will no longer be there. At the same time as news spreads of Zendegi’s use of the new technology, the company must also deal with protesters who object to it on moral grounds and with hackers who try to blackmail the company into giving up the technology.

It’s not a bad premise and it’s interesting to see Egan deal with the near-future for a change, but I am sad to report that the novel fails on almost all counts. For one thing, the novel is too short and ends rather abruptly. No sooner than you feel that you’re getting into the interesting science-fiction bits and dealing with the ethical implications of proxies Nasim has created that the novel is over. It’s ludicrous how much time Egan spends on the revolution that sets Iran up as a healthy democracy and how little he spends on developing the future of the proxies. The two parts of the novel never quite manage to connect seamlessly. It feels as if Egan really wanted to write a plausible scenario of how the Islamic regime in Iran could be toppled but realized that he needed to add science-fiction elements to the story to get it published.

As for the science-fiction bits, they’re nothing Egan hasn’t covered elsewhere before and with more detail and profoundness. His second novel Permutation City pretty much plumbed the philosophical implications of conscious software as exhaustively as it’s possible to get and nothing in Zendegi adds anything substantially new to the discussion. The side-loading and neural mapping technology introduced here is cool but it doesn’t beat the simplicity and undeniable authoritativeness of the system used in his short story Learning to be Me to explain how a living person might be transformed into a software analogue.

Even the virtual reality of Zendegi itself is a let-down. While I appreciated the novelty of the Persian Shahnameh as the setting for Martin and his son’s online adventures, the concept of bringing the stories of myth and legend to life in virtual worlds is too dated to be very exciting. Tad Williams’ Otherland tetralogy for example may not be very good, but it still does a better job in describing how crazy virtual worlds can get. It was interesting to read about the detailed descriptions of the VR rigs the characters use and how they’d work, but there’s nothing about Egan’s particular implementation that makes it stand out from so many others.

The best part of the novel is his description of everyday life in Iran but even here, Egan comes across as trying too hard. It’s as if he’s determined to single-handedly reform the country’s image in the popular mind and insists on browbeating readers about how ignorant it is to think of it as a backward, uncivilized country. At the same time, like his character Martin Seymour, he remains far too politically correct and far too reluctant to seriously criticize obvious failings, such as the dominant position of Islam in the country and popular attitudes towards homosexuality.

For all these reasons, I find it impossible to recommend the book at all. It’s not bad per se, just terribly bland and bereft of any real reason to exist. I get that Egan has a personal affection for the country (his Iranian trip appears to be the first time that he has traveled outside of his native Australia) but try as he might, he’s not an expert on Iran and readers interested in the country would be better served by picking up a book by an author with better credentials.

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