Gollancz, 2010, 332 pages, C$24.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-575-08618-0
After two quasi-incomprehensible novels that pushed the edge of what even jaded hard-SF fans were willing to stomach, Greg Egan’s latest novel Zendegi is a return to a more accessible style that will remind his faithful readers of Teranesia. Set in a near future and focusing intensely on mid-step technological issues, it’s notable for its attention to characters, openness to non-western culture and pessimistic contradiction of previous Egan novels.
Structurally split between a first third set in 2012 and a second section set in 2027-2028, Zendegi first spends time with Australian journalist Martin Seymour as he travels to Iran and gets involved in a second Iranian revolution. While this first half is mostly told as a techno-thriller set five minutes in the future, a subplot featuring Nasim, an expatriate Iranian scientist working in neurobiology, suggests the novel’s ultimate SF goals.
Fifteen years later, the novel comes closer to the kind of future imagined in Egan’s other novels. Virtual Worlds are now fully immersive, and new techniques are helping digitize aspects of human behaviour as semi-autonomous agents. It’s not quite artificial intelligence, but it’s steadily getting closer. So close, in fact, that when Seymour is diagnosed with a potentially incurable cancer, he contacts Nasim to be partially recorded in order to provide guidance to his soon-to-be-orphaned son. Meanwhile, the convergence between human brains and virtual models is raising both hopes and controversy –leading to a few scenes of virtual vandalism with a darker purpose.
With Zendegi, Egan takes a closer look at the middle-steps on the way to the kind of fully-digital futures he described in books such as Diaspora. SF traditionally assumes an intermediate “…and something magical happens…” in-between the present and an AI-enabled future, but a few writers are occasionally willing to dive into the morass and set stories in the messy interim period. (Recently, both Robert J. Sawyer with his WWW series and Ted Chiang in The Lifecycle of Software Objects have treaded upon similar themes.)
Accordingly, there’s nothing simple or optimistic about Egan’s treatment of the subject in Zendegi. Various approximations, shortcuts and compromises are required before having even the simplest simulated personalities up and running, and much of the effort is motivated by strictly mercenary gain as various online services compete for profit. The main plot of the novel itself is a mournful race against time, and it doesn’t end as optimistically as you would expect –especially if your idea of Egan’s fiction was shaped by his earliest novels rather than the more nuanced material he’s been writing in his short stories.
The best thing about Zendegi as compared to Egan’s latest Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence is that Egan has taken a step back from the abyss of incomprehensibility and delivered an accessible novel with credible human characters. It feels a lot like Teranesia in that it allows Egan to dial down the speculation and develop a richer recognizable extrapolation of our present. With its deep immersion in Iranian culture, Zendegi also suggests that Egan can write near-future globalized SF à la Ian McDonald.
Unfortunately, Zendegi also leaves itself open to more common criticism. If Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence could use “I didn’t understand most of it” negative reviews like badges of honour, Zendegi won’t benefit so much from charges that it is short story material padded to novel length. Focusing strictly on the SF elements, it’s possible to lose much of the novel’s first third, a good chunk of the redundant segments set in the Zendegi virtual world itself, and considerably shorten the remainder of the novel. The resulting novella would feel a lot more energetic while delivering the same extrapolative charge; it would also feel closer to Egan’s recent short fiction than his novels.
While the finished results will please readers looking for either a more realistic take on the near-future of mind uploading or globally-aware genre fiction, Zendegi also carries a penalty by virtue of being published under the Egan brand name: It’s more timid, less fizzy, and nowhere near as interesting as much of his other books. It is, in many ways, a wholly average SF novel. Not bad, not fantastic; just ordinary. This will be a relief to some, a disappointment to others, and maybe even both at the same time.