Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A transhumanist pauses

It's been a while since I last read something (or, more accurately, wrote about it) by the Australian writer Greg Egan. While I've still a collection of his stories to write about (in passing: they're uniformly excellent), I figure I'd better write-up his novel, Zendegi, before I forget all about it.

Iran, 2012. Martin, an Australian journalist, has travelled to Tehran to cover parliamentary elections, widely anticipated to be a stitched-up damp squib. They turn out as expected but a subsequent scandal involving the ruling elite restarts a flame thought extinguished by the crushing of the Green Movement in 2009. Attempting to document the scandal, Martin finds himself at its core and at some personal risk, but before long is reporting on the fall of the government. Meanwhile, Nasim, an Iranian exile working in the US, looks on at the changes in her homeland. Her continuing work as a computational neuroscientist depends on the successful funding of the Human Connectome Project, a vast effort that proposes to digitally describe the patterns of neuron connection in the human brain. But the HCP's faltering prospects, as well as unwanted overtures from a transhumanist entrepreneur keen to be "uploaded" first, convinces Nasim to quit academia and return to a changed Iran that appears to offer a bright, hopeful future.

15 years later. Martin has never left Iran, and has built a family and business in Tehran. Nasim has risen to the top of the Zendegi corporation, which serves up virtual reality adventures for all the family including, as it happens, Martin and his young son, Javeed. But the world-simulating business is fiercely competitive, and Zendegi is gradually losing ground to its rivals. To combat the slide, Nasim digs back into her past academic work to improve the process of side-loading, a method of "digitising" human experience. With this innovation, and the marketing coup of side-loading of a famous Iranian soccer star into virtual football matches, the fortunes of Zendegi begin to turn around. Meanwhile, a double tragedy strikes Martin's family, and threatens to leave Javeed an orphan, potentially raised by conservative Muslim relatives. Through a family connection, Martin contacts Nasim with a desperate request: can she create a side-loaded version of him to support and guide Javeed through a parentless future?

Of all of the novels of Egan's I've read to date, this is easily the one most likely to win him a wider readership. In part, because he gives it an almost-present setting that touches on a current political sore-point, but also because he eschews his traditional approach to novel-writing of laying on the physics with a trowel. Probably most importantly, however, is that Egan has invested the novel with characters that are considerably more developed, and much more easy to identify with, than his usual far future scientists or virtual reality consciousnesses. To be fair, he does still largely steer clear of Martin's marriage to Mahnoosh, and Nasim is given very little in her life away from her work, but even so they're far more fleshed out, and fleshy, than he's dealt with before. Especially as Martin's story takes on a desperate edge as he both tries to cope with his probable death, while arranging for a computer-generated proxy to help raise his son to share his values.

I'm getting ahead of myself a bit there though. First of all, I should say that Zendegi is an excellent read, whether one considers it in terms of its science fiction aspects, its take on Iranian politics or its humane central drama. Given my previous experience with Egan which, while positive, has not exactly been caveat-free, I was genuinely surprised where he went in this book. In the past, Egan's virtual realities and their electronic citizens appear fully formed (cf. Schild's Ladder), but here he takes a detailed (but thankfully physics-free) look at the beginnings of these technologies. His travels through the highways and byways of contemporary Iranian politics also came as something of surprise given his usual penchant for far future societies with only a tangential connection to present day concerns. But I was most surprised with the touching core of Martin's concern for his son's future. Egan has given his characters human circumstances and frailties before, but here they're much more front-and-centre, as well as credible.

One idea which, while raised, does get a little short-changed by the human drama, is the status of the virtual reality Proxies that exist in Zendegi. They are introduced as only initially convincing NPCs who play alongside Martin and Javeed in Zendegi's storybook worlds. But as the novel progresses, Nasim and her team develop ever more advanced Proxies that are side-loaded to tackle increasingly human-like activities, such as complex team games like football, or even serving to spot hacks and defend Zendegi against attacks that have circumvented its automatic checking software. Furthermore, the central strand of the second half of the novel is the creation of a Proxy side-loaded with Martin's emotional and intellectual responses, a Proxy whose responses even Martin finds unnerving. While it is implied, or at least suspected, that these advanced Proxies are conscious (albeit with goldfish memories), Egan only really focuses on the ethics of their use late in the novel, and then only quite lightly. So the reader only briefly considers the fates of potentially millions of intelligent and self-aware electronic slaves. Still, Egan's flipping of the novel from a tale about the aspiration to create perfect simulacra into one that imagines a future of exploited consciousnesses is laudable. And, given his previous novels which depict a Brave New World of digital selves, quite unexpected.

In passing, an interesting beyond-the-novel angle is how Egan is, essentially, pouring cold water over the dreams (fantasies?) of the transhumanists. Given his previous work, it would be very easy to categorise him as a leading member in the ranks of the Singularity-awaiting masses. Augmented humans? Check. Sliding slope between real- and virtual-life? Check. Fanatical faith in technology? Check. But, instead, he uses Zendegi to fire a shot across the metaphorical bows of the transhumanist project. First, by introducing an unpleasant (but not inaccurate) transhumanist character keen to subvert the HCP. Then by kicking their hopes of near-future digital salvation into the long grass by illustrating the incredible difficulties involved. And, finally, by observing that, in the event of its construction, the road to transhumanist paradise will most likely be paved by enslaved Proxies. Personal, technical and ethical snubs, and (seemingly) quite against the run of play in Egan's fiction. Most enjoyable.

Anyhow, by way of summary, an excellent read which shows that Egan is capable of far more than interesting science fiction ideas. However, it's not, to be honest, my favourite of his works. Though I appreciated all of the things that I rave about above, particularly his avoidance of heavy-duty physics, I missed the more out-there aspects of his earlier novels, like the multiverse of Diaspora, the new lifeforms of Schild's Ladder and the QM mind-bending of Quarantine. Admittedly, in all of those, the good bits came with far too much physics for me to unequivocally champion them. But I hope (and expect) that Zendegi will be able to win Egan more fans of his work. He deserves them.

P.S. A particular nice idea in Zendegi, one which may even be on the cards, is how the Iranian protesters circumvent the blocks put on their telecommunications by their rulers. Instead of relying on an infrastructure of mobile phone masts that can be centrally shut down, their "slightly smart" phones pass information between themselves, gradually "diffusing" messages outwards until a functioning mast is found. Very clever.

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