Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Zendegi, by Greg Egan

Cyberpunk for the 21st century, with an optimistic vision of near-future Iran.


Night Shade Books, 2010, 300 pages

From the author's homepage:

In 2012, journalist Martin Seymour travels to Iran to cover the parliamentary elections. With most would-be candidates disqualified this turns out to be the expected non-event, but shortly afterwards a compromising image of a government official captured on a mobile phone triggers a political avalanche.

Nasim Golestani is a young Iranian scientist, living in exile in the United States after the execution of her dissident father. She is hoping to work on the Human Connectome Project — which aims to construct a detailed map of the wiring of the human brain — but when government funding for the project is cancelled and a chance comes to return to her homeland, she chooses to head back to Iran.

Fifteen years later, Martin is living in Iran with his wife and young son, while Nasim is in charge of the virtual world known as Zendegi, which is used by millions of people for entertainment and business. When Zendegi comes under threat from powerful competitors, Nasim draws on her old skills, and data from the now-completed Human Connectome Project, to embark on a program to create more life-like virtual characters, giving the company an unbeatable edge.

As controversy grows over the nature and rights of these software characters, tragedy strikes Martin's family. Martin turns to Nasim, seeking a solution that no one else can offer ... but Zendegi is about to become a battlefield.

Zendegi is not really a cyberpunk novel; it's got a lot of the trappings of that genre (cutting-edge tech, near-future setting, political and social revolutions, online worlds) but none of its sensibilities. It's not rebelling, it's not pushing envelopes, and it's certainly not dark and gritty. Greg Egan is a computer programmer and it shows, as he devotes a lot of page space to the workings of the online world Zendegi, a sort of full-immersion Second Life using what he imagines technological advances in the next decade or so will allow. The really speculative elements come into the story when Nasim, an Iranian-born, U.S.-educated neurobiologist, develops the technique of "side-loading" neural maps of human thought and response patterns into software, creating online avatars that are not truly sentient or self-aware, but getting close enough that it begins to make a lot of people uncomfortable.

As a work of speculative fiction, it's quite good, if you enjoy peeks into the near future from someone who actually knows what he's talking about. I have some background in this area myself, and I did not find anything in Zendegi to be implausible or completely off-the-wall, technologically speaking (as opposed to the works of William Gibson, who pretty much just made shit up that was ridiculous even in the 80s). That's not to say that I think Egan nailed what the future of artificial intelligence and online worlds will really be like; only a fool tries to predict with certainty what the Internet is going to look like a couple years from now, let alone ten or fifteen. But it's one plausible vision.

Zendegi also presents what he admits in his afterword to be a purely speculative (and highly optimistic) vision of Iran's future, when a relatively bloodless coup topples the Ayatollah's regime and brings Iran into a modern, democratic (but not completely Westernized) age. I've never been to Iran and don't speak Persian, so I can't speak to the book's authenticity, but nothing struck me as stereotyped, caricatured, or exoticized.

The book's strength, besides the cutting-edge portrayal of the online world circa 2025 (so cutting-edge that like the works of William Gibson, Zendegi is going to be pretty dated by then no matter how accurate it turns out to be in its projections) is the human interest angle of the story. This is not a book about fighting megacorporations or tyrannical governments or malevolent computer programs. It's a book about a researcher who begins to question what the definition of "human" is -- if you create a virtual entity that has all the memories and responses of a human being, at what point does it become unethical to simply treat it like a collection of bits that can be rearranged or deleted at will? And it's about a man who wants to have some say in the raising of his son even after he is gone.

While these parts are thoughtful and even touching, Zendegi becomes almost didactic at times. Many sci-fi authors do much worse, so I didn't feel that Egan was either overloading the reader with techy exposition or pushing the moral dilemmas angle too hard, but these were obviously the elements of the book that he really wanted the reader to think about, and it shows, at the expense of providing much in the way of drama or story. On the one hand, this book is full of SFnal concepts; it's not a story that could be told stripped of them, whereas many sci-fi novels are just an old familiar story retold with spaceships and aliens. On the other hand, there's no adventure, not even really much in the way of an antagonist, and thus little to excite someone who reads sci-fi for the spaceships and aliens. Zendegi is a fairly short novel so the pacing doesn't drag too much, but I did find myself getting bored more than once while reading it, which is why I cannot unreservedly recommend it unless you are really hooked by the premise, whether it's the ethical debates about artificial intelligence or something sci-fi-ish set in Iran.

Verdict: A good if not particularly exciting or edgy post-cyberpunk cyberpunk novel, just right for fans of pure speculative fiction who use that term unironically, but certainly not cut from the same cloth as Gibson or Stephenson.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction

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