Monday, February 11, 2013

Review of "Permutation City" by Greg Egan

William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, the concluding volume to his influential Sprawl series, saw several of the main characters living within an aleph. The idea borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, an aleph is an object that contains a virtually infinite amount of knowledge. Operating as a permanent virtual reality, the surface of the idea was only touched upon by Gibson, begging another writer to fully detail the idea. Greg Egan’s 1994 Permutation City does just that. 

The world of 2050 Egan imagines is not so far removed from our own, and like Gibson’s, is scarily plausible.  Technology advanced to the point personalities are uploadable, the rich are able to afford the computing power necessary to maintain a virtual copy of themselves in VR while the less well-to-do save in the hopes of having immortality upon death—or at least until their finances dissipate.  The technology capable but not ubiquitous, it requires huge quantities of computing power to keep the system running, making competition for technical resources fierce.  Public services (not unlike the “cloud” service companies are currently driving at) are rented and used as needed, home networks prohibitively expensive to operate.

Thrown into this setting on the first page, readers are introduced to the main character Paul Durham, a man who has copied himself so many times inside the network it takes some “soul-searching” to discover which is the electronic copy and which is the man in flesh.  Having a plan like no other has ever dreamed, Durham contacts a down-on-her-luck bacteriologist named Maria, and the two begin to work his concept into… reality.  Needing sponsorship, Durham also contacts a number of the world’s billionaires, two of which sign up for his venture and become participants in their own unique way.  The bounds of existentialism pushed farther than mankind has ever dreamed, where Durham and company end up is territory accessible only to sci-fi.  It also makes for fascinating reading.

Egan pushing the door impossibly further open with each reveal, Permutation City is a mind expanding novel that threatens to burst the brain on numerous occasions.  The ideas simple yet massive, the limits of computation using hardware and software less-than-implausibly more powerful than today’s technology shift and slide under the author’s pen, continuously threatening to become too big to handle.  Cellular automata tossed into the mix, a complete range of evolutionary and cosmological scenarios come to light, making the book an oasis of possibility for the individual who wants paradise without the mortal trappings.  

A thinking person’s story, those not put off by technical exposition and thought experimentation in scientifically abstract form will find a wonderland of metaphysics to ponder in Permutation City.  Written down to his audience not up, keeping up with Egan’s twists and turns of theory and story is not always an easy task.  For those able, the rewards are long in coming, or from another perspective, give the book a high re-read value.  The possibilities of technology and existence inside a virtual world are explored in a fashion so few other writers have.  Life as malleable and dimensionally alterable as a jpg is on today’s computers, the characters’ thoughts, dreams—existence, even—take on alien aspects of meaning.  Peer, one of the rich sponsors for example, edits his life in both internal and external fashion.  Exiting his Copy, he re-programs it: “Now you will enjoy woodworking.”, and re-enters, woodworking until getting bored, afterwards “re-programming” himself into another mode of interest.

Not everything is Arthur C. Clarke hunky-dory, however.  Maria, and another millionaire sponsor, Thomas, have stories and reactions to life in the virtual reality that present the more human, dare I say mortal/reactionary, view of the concept.  Though Egan cannot help but let his eminently pro-science views slip through the lines, there remains a realistic side (if that expression is even possible with this book) to character perception and doubt regarding the value of virtual existence—particularly involving multiple copies of a person, even time for discussion on religion and materialism.

Permutation City also briefly touches upon some of the human rights associated with people living inside a virtual environment. “Peer [one of the rich sponsors] was the only software on the planet capable of encrypting instructions to his executor in a form compatible with her own matching key.  It was the closest thing he had to a legal identity.”  Interacting with the real world through mediums, are the copies to be held responsible for their actions inside VR?  How to punish them?  And for the individual: what is death?  Life?  How do I feel about a copy/clone of myself existing in a parallel VR?  These and many other issues Egan raises are mind-blowing.

In the end, Permutation City is an important book in science fiction that deserves a much wider audience—even in literary fiction, as technology advances with each day.  Many undoubtedly put off by the technical content, intelligent readers will have no problem, and in fact enjoy piecing together Egan’s reality, or realities, as it were.  Given its near-future proximity, it’s difficult for the book not to likewise be affecting.  With believable characters involved in a stunningly insightful look at evolution and the meaning of existence when sentient copies can be bought, deleted, paused, stored, and all the other verbage of computers inside VR, the book is as serious a probe into existentialism in the post-modern world as literature in the age of computers gets.  Cyberpunk fans, PKD fans, and anyone interested in the tech or post-human side of the genre will have a heyday with this novel.  Recommended.

(This review has also been posted at

1 comment:

  1. Hmm. I think there's value in what Egan is trying to do, but I think the task of weaving together deep understanding of mathematics and science with fiction of literary merit is in some sense so great an undertaking that it's ultimately beyond his ability. As someone trained in mathematics, I don't get the feeling of deep aesthetic appreciation from Egan's writing, rather, it appears like a superficially more complicated form of technobabble window-dressing. (Of course, many people disagree with me...)

    That Egan quote which shows up over and over again, where he says that people should be prepared to work through the details with pen and paper, feels irksome for some reason... I can't really put my finger on why though.