Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Permutation City by Greg Egan

Permutation City by Greg Egan is the first book I've read by the author, although I've been meaning to pick up one of his books for some time. I have to admit, left to base my decision only on blurbs this probably wouldn't have been the one I chose to read first, but it was the book that came up as a review copy from the (new reprint) publisher. Que sera sera and I certainly don't regret reading it. I have definite plans to read more Egan in the future.
A life in Permutation City is unlike any life to which you’re accustomed. You have Eternal Life, the power to live forever. Immortality is a real thing, just not the thing you’d expect.

Life is just electronic code. You have been digitized, scanned, and downloaded into a virtual reality program. A Copy of a Copy. For Paul Durham, he keeps making Copies of himself, but the issue is that his Copies keep changing their minds and shutting themselves down.

You also have Maria Deluca, who is nothing but an Autoverse addict. She spends every waking minute with the cellular automaton known as the Autoverse, a world that lives by the mathematical “laws of physics.” Paul makes Maria an offer to design and drop a seed into the Autoverse that will allow her to indulge in her obsession. There is, however, one catch: you can no longer terminate, bail out, and remove yourself. You will never be your normal flesh-and-blood life again. The question then becomes: Is this what she really wants? Is this what we really want?

From the brilliant mind of Greg Egan, Permutation City, first published in 1994, comes a world of wonder that makes you ask if you are you, or is the Copy of you the real you?
The blurb is a bit misleading, I think, because more of the story takes place in the real world than is implied. The first two thirds or so of the book alternate between a few characters, most of whom, admittedly, are Copies (computer simulations of the original people), who mostly function if not in the real world, then as close to it as Copies can get. The two most central characters are: Paul Durham, whose point of view scenes are set about six years earlier than the rest of the story and whose story we see from the point of view of an experimental Copy (most "living" Copies are of deceased people); and Maria, a programmer who compulsively spends her free time and spare money on modelling a bacterium in a virtual world with slightly different laws of physics (and consequently chemistry and biochemistry).

My favourite sections, all the way through, turned out to be the bits from Maria's point of view. Superficially these sounded like they should be the most boring: a thought experiment featuring the molecular biochemistry of imaginary compounds does not seem like it should be interesting. But it really was. From an intellectual point of view I found those sections engaging and the idea of the Autoverse (the simulated universe) fascinating. I could very much relate to Maria's compulsive toying with it. Honestly, there doesn't seem to be much difference between that and real science simulations apart from the complexity of the models (the story is set in 2051 so computers are more sophisticated). And as for not being applicable, it didn't feel that much more abstract than modelling stars does.

Conversely, I was least engaged with the early Paul-as-Copy story. Well, not at the very start, I mean in the first half/two thirds. It starts of entertainingly enough with a missing bailout option, but it quickly shifts to a lot of philosophising on the nature of consciousness, existence and identity. Which was interesting in principle, but which I found generally less engaging. Most of the time when I put the book down to go do something else (eat, go to the shop, etc) it was during one of these sections. That said, Paul's story is certainly the driver of the plot and the story would be much poorer without it.

There are also some peripheral characters whose stories add to the general tapestry of the world and ideas being explored, but who weren't important to the overall plot (or, more accurately, had minimal impact on anyone else). I won't go into more details because a) I'm not sure I can without spoiling a major plot point and b) even if I could, it's surely more exciting to just read the book, no?

This is the first (that I can think of right now) hard/technical science fiction novel I've read by an Australian. I've read other SF novels which have been scientifically accurate and I've read hard/technical short stories/novellas, but I really can't think of another novel right now*. I'll definitely be reading more Egan in the future and I look forward to more enjoyable technical SF.

*Update: I thought of some! Many of Sean Williams' novels (including with Shane Dix) are hard SF. But that's still not a LOT of examples.

If you're a fan of hard SF definitely pick up Permutation City. I would also recommend it to fans of philosophy and computer-centred stories. For a book written 20 years ago, I have to say the computer stuff was shockingly on point. I mean, it wasn't the world we currently live in, but it is set about 35 years in our future. The only slight discrepancy was some aspects of computing having progressed further than others relative to where we are right now but it was barely noticeable. (I don't think this edition has been updated or anything, and there was one instance of sync spelt with an h, against current fashions.) Anyway, read Permutation City! Especially if you like science fiction!

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 1994, this edition published December 2014, New South Books
Series: Standalone but apparently part of the "Subjective Cosmology Cycle" (book 2 of 3)
Format read: eARC
Source: Courtesy of the publisher
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

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