[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0752816497″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41TniVmSkyL._SL160_.jpg” width=”96″] What thoughts and experiences define you? Are there things you’d like to forget, yet if you did perhaps you’d also be deleting part of the core of your own character. How much could you choose to forget or rewire and still be the same person? This is just one of the issues explored in fascinating detail by master storyteller Greg Egan in his 1994 novel Permutation City.
The book is set in the near future where you can be scanned and your mind recreated as a digital “copy” in a software world. Nothing too ground-breaking there (although keep in mind this was written in 1994).
Being “copied” is expensive and unless you’re very rich you’ll find yourself cut-off in the virtual world because you’re running so much slower than the real world. A real-world loved one might have to spend an entire day in “slow down” just to have a short chat with you.
The main characters are a smart young programmer; a slightly crazed visionary; a guilty and tormented billionaire; and two broke software entities. With this cast Egan builds an impressive and utterly believable story.
One of the themes he explores is immortality. What exactly do you do with an infinite life? Contemplate it for a moment: a life that doesn’t last a thousand years, but goes on and on and even a billion years is of no consequence. How do you keep from repeating the same experiences over and over? How do you occupy your mind? And as the eons roll by which memories do you choose to keep and which ones do you let fade? If you rewire your brain to find the inane interesting have you now ceased to be “you” at all?
The way each character deals with immortality is fascinating. They range from indulgence, to a self-imposed form of Hell, to an almost stasis-like repetition.
I can’t say the characters are lovable or even all that likable. The young programmer spends a lot of her time complaining; and the visionary is too crazed to identify with. For me the tormented billionaire is the most likeable character, although given his defining action in the book you can’t feel too sympathetic toward his fate. One question does bother me though: What happens to him in the end? Is he redeemed by making the phone call? If you have any thoughts on that please leave a comment ! (Likewise, what happens to the stowaways? For them the TVC seems to continue, yet wasn’t their version destroyed? I can’t quote fathom where they are. Again, your ideas in the comments please.)
Another theme Egan explores is that of reality itself. How real is a digitally-created world? What defines its reality and how dependent is it on mere machinery for its existence? And what happens when competing worlds overlap?
There’s a lot here to contemplate and despite being 20 years old this book has lost none of its power to inspire. It’s one of my favorites and bears multiple rereadings. It’s a shame Egan’s latest work isn’t up to this same standard.
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