Permutation City, Greg Egan

Millennium, 1994 (1998 reprint), 310 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-75281-649-7

I usually read two books at the same time. One hardcover for reading at home or for where carrying hardcovers around isn’t too much of a problem. At the same time, I usually carry a paperback with me to read on the bus or whenever I find myself with a moment to spare. Given that I’ve been doing this for more that a while (we’re talking half a decade here…), I was convinced that there was scarcely any difference between my perception of a book read on the bus or at home. Looking at the paperback copy of Permutation City on my desk which I’m supposed to review today, I’m not so sure.

Permutation City is about a lot of things, but it really revolves around the concept that sometime in the future, humans will be able to be “copied” to electronic formats, which then live inside a VR environment somewhere on the Net.

Bah! Déjà vu! will say some. Already seen. Sawyer did it in the Nebula-Winning The Terminal Experiment.

Not so fast. Permutation City opens with a copy being activated, realizing that he’s a copy imprisoned in a computer and immediately reaching for the suicide button. Quite a contrast with Sawyer’s “oh yeah, cool!” approach. And, dare I say, somewhat more realistic.

(Please don’t interpret this as unkind words about The Terminal Experiment which, despite significant flaws, remains of the of best SF books of 1995.)

As usual, Greg Egan packs idea upon idea and the results is as exhilarating as it’s mind-bending. One can rest assured that every new Egan novel will be cracking with new concepts and nifty setpieces. Like his other novels, it’s a trip, and a heady one. Unfortunately, Permutation CIty suffers from one usual Egan tic, and an unusual one.

The usual tic is that by the end of the book, all laws are being rewritten, the action is quickly moving on the metaphysical plane and things simply don’t make sense any more. The good news are that Permutation City handles this breakthrough better than either Quarantine or Distress.

The bad news are that Permutation City seems to suffer from a slower beginning than Egan’s other novels. Despite the gripping opening set-piece described above, the first half of the book settles down in a fairly hum-drum pattern that is either very subtle, or uncharacteristically overwritten. (Or, of a philosophical bent seldom seen around here.) This impression of a novel that should have been tightened remains even after the action starts. (Other nitpick: “baling out”… urgh!)

Fortunately, the remainder of the novel brings up so many questions that readers are unlikely to feel cheated. Which brings us back to the paperback copy of Permutation City staring at me. I’ll admit that I wasn’t in my usual frame of mind while reading Permutation City (job interviews will do that to you). Who knows whether or not I would have read a hardcover edition with the same attitude? (Philanthropic readers who wish to contribute to this experiment are encouraged to email me…)

This hardcover/paperback theme turned even stranger if you consider that the hardcover novel I was reading at the time was James L. Halperin’s The First Immortal, a novel about immortality that uses “copies” in what is again a gosh-wow fashion. Egan’s approach, using the usual cautious SF skepticism, does seem considerably more realistic that Halperin’s. It’s probably another element of the considerable different between the two author’s approach: Egan is obviously writing SF shaped by previous SF.

For whatever reason, then, Permutation City didn’t grip me as strongly as Egan’s other novels. I reserve the privilege to re-read it again in the future and change my mind, while still encouraging everyone to grab whatever Egan they can locate. SF is terribly lucky, as a genre, to be able to claim such an audacious writer in its ranks. Let’s see where Egan goes next.

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