Russell Letson reviews Greg Egan

In Zendegi, Greg Egan cranks his focus back from the possibilities of life in extreme and exotic environments far from here and now to – well, very close to here and now. The book is divided into two parts set in Iran in 2012 and 2027-28, as the rule of that nation’s religious and political authoritarians is first challenged and then toppled by a popular uprising. While the Iranians reform and re-form their society, two viewpoint characters remake their lives. Martin and Nasim are, respectively, expatriate and exile, rootless and uprooted, and both, to a degree, misfits. The book opens with journalist Martin divesting himself of the impedimenta of his settled life – particularly his record collection – as he prepares to leave Australia to cover the unrest in the runup to the Iranian elections. On the other side of the world, Nasim, the daughter of an executed Iranian dissident, is doing research at MIT while keeping an obsessive eye on the events Martin (and everyone else) is covering in her former homeland.

Part One shuttles between Martin’s observation of the civil disturbances, right up to a storming-of-the-Bastille equivalent; and Nasim’s work on mapping and simulating the neural pathways of song production in zebra finches and her dealings with some of the issues rising out of this research. Part Two brings Martin and Nasim together fifteen years later for an uncomfortable and difficult collaboration that has more thematic than plot roots in the first half of the book. Martin, suffering from a possibly fatal cancer, wants to leave something of himself to which his young son Javeed can turn for guidance should the worst happen. He fastens on the possibility of a virtual Martin, a proxy built using the fruits of Nasim’s old brain-mapping research, which she has already used to build computer-based characters for the commercial VR system that supplies the book’s title. Zendegi (Farsi for ‘‘life’’) is an entertainment environment rather than a game, though it does include role-playing games among its diversions, and Martin has used its repertory of adventures based on Persian legend as part of his attempt to shape Javeed’s character.

Aside from the tomorrow’s-headlines material about Iranian politics, the ‘‘science fiction part’’ of the story focuses on the two areas: increasingly sophisticated, immersive, and networked virtual-reality technologies; and the scanning and mapping of nervous systems as part of an effort to mimic them in computational systems. Nasim is involved with both, first in her MIT research on finches and, years later, in her work at Zendegi in Tehran. Both jobs require sophisticated computer skills and an understanding of the possibilities and limits of simulating the behavior of living creatures.

The novel is not, of course, just about the technology or even the possibilities opened up by sudden shifts and advances in science, though it engages both of those. The book also portrays ordinary people caught up in the uncomfortable and dangerous processes of political and social change – and in the challenges of ordinary life beyond the revolution, including marriage, child-rearing, and fitting in and getting along among those whose values are not quite one’s own. Much of its appeal resides in a picture of the textures of twenty-first-century Iranian life, a milieu that turns out to be only mildly exotic, as the traditional social mores of the Middle East rub up against global technology and commerce.

Nevertheless, the science-y bits are a reminder of how careful Egan is with the operational, how-it-works end of hard SF, since possibilities and limits are at the heart of this novel. Even as simple a task as digitizing Martin’s LP collection evokes this issue. A friendly fellow-traveler explains why his MP3s sound bad and why the automatic digitization processes can produce bad results, then makes this thoroughly thematic speech:

[S]o many processes are effortless and automatic now that it’s easy to forget that most things in the world still play by the old rules….We’re at the doorway to a new kind of world…. And we have the chance to make it extraordinary. But if we spend all our time gazing at the wonders ahead without remembering where we’re standing right now, we’re going to trip and fall flat on our faces, over and over again.

As much attention as Egan has given to the far side of the Singularity or the Age of Miracles or the doorway into wonder, he has also paid attention to ‘‘where we’re standing right now,’’ mostly in his earlier short fiction – ’’The Moral Virologist’’, ‘‘Cocoon’’, ‘‘Silver Fire’’, ‘‘Beyond the Whistle Test’’ – which show flashes of (often satirical) anger with contemporary matters. Here he deals with technological change in a world that also includes large issues of political and social change, the ties that create community, as well as familiar topics such as the nature of personality and of freedom.

Nasim’s research has rubbed up against other projects and agendas: the rich nerd whose ambition is to be the first full-personality upload; the movement that is sure that it can kick-start an evolutionary process that will produce a succession of artificial-intelligence deities; the ethical-philosophical opposition to such enterprises, willing to carry out industrial sabotage to make its point; the traditionally-conservative mullahs who pass on the moral correctness of creating mind-like entities; the fringe crazies who will argue their position with bombs. And all of this feeds into and complicates Martin’s increasingly desperate quest for a proxy father for Javeed, raising moral as well as practical questions, filling in the gaps between can-we and should-we. Egan is at least as interested in dramatizing and testing the implications of the technology and the propositions and assumptions behind it as he is in figuring out how it might be devised and applied.

The more I thought about it, the more I was reminded of Nancy Kress’s Beggars sequence, with its relentless interrogation of technological solutions to social and moral problems. And like Kress, Egan’s final response is novelistic rather than simply genre-science-fictional – or, to be precise, this book satisfies the claims that SF has to being an art form as fully engaged with the worlds of the family and the community as it is with those of the laboratory, the machine shop, the space habitat, or the computational environment. Egan’s aliens and post-human personalities are engaging, sympathetic, and understandable creations. When he turns his attention to ordinary humans, living in a world that is just around the corner from our own, he will break your heart.

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