Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Review: Permutation City by Greg Egan

Permutation City by Greg Egan
Published: Millenium, 1994
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Award
Awards Nominated: Philip K. Dick & British Science Fantasy Association Award

The Book:

“When it becomes possible to make an electronic copy of a human mind, the practice is initially the domain of the eccentric rich who want to cheat death. Over time, though, the reasons people have for copying themselves have begun to change. For instance, Maria is neither rich nor in fear of her own death. After grieving over the death of her father, she’s determined that she’s going to make enough money to copy her mother before it’s too late.

Maria’s interest in the Autoverse, a software environment with simplified natural laws, leads her to contract with a man whose motives are even stranger.  He claims to offer his electronic-copy clients true immortality--free of the fear of loss of computing power--in a universe that can offer all the joys of our physical world, even up to the possibility of alien life.  He is either wrong, a charlatan, or a man who is about to learn the meaning of eternity.” ~Allie

This is the first book I’ve read by Greg Egan, but I plan to seek out more of his work in the future.  I listened to this one on audiobook, and was not really a fan of the voice patterns of the narrator, which seemed too monotonous to me.  Once the story got going, though, I was so interested that my personal dislike of the narration style didn’t matter.

My Thoughts:

This was basically everything I wanted in a book about mind uploading.  It addresses the hardware problems of the copies, the idea of whether they represent a continuation of self, what motivates different people to copy themselves, how it might affect them to exist while knowing they are not a physical entity, how the existence of copies is dealt with in the physical world, and much more.  It’s clear that a lot of thought went into exploring all the implications of this kind of technology, and that is exactly the kind of speculation that I most enjoy reading about.  One point I especially enjoyed was the exploration of flexibility of one’s sense of self. For instance, if you can directly modify the way that you think and feel, does your choice to do so change who you are?  If not, then what is it that defines your core self?  Maria once pointed out that a single person at two random points in their life might seem like two different people, but their lived experience gives a sense of continuity of identity.

On the tech side, Permutation City has a few pretty accurate predictions of the future, and further entertaining speculation.  For instance, this was published just a year after WWW was declared a public asset, but Egan already predicted grid computing and trading of processing power.  I think Egan also accurately concluded that accurately modeling humans would not be a reasonable feat in terms of computing power, and the story acknowledges that many ‘short-cuts’ are required to make copies a reality. Even with the shortcuts, minds can only be run at a maximum ratio of 17:1 real time to subjective experience.  For software environments, I also thought the idea of the Autoverse was really interesting.  It kind of reminds me of the appeal Minecraft seems to have (I may be wrong, I’ve never played it), providing the user with tools, resources, and defined rules for how this specific version of ‘reality’ works.

The second part of the novel takes a turn towards the weird side, and I think that how readers will respond to that will largely depend on how they feel about the “Dust Theory”.  I thought it was a very fun idea, and I liked the direction that it allowed the novel to go.  I don’t want to explain the theory here, since I don’t want to give away any major plot details.  In general, the first part of the novel is embedded in a pretty believable near-future world with some speculative technology, while the second half launches confidently into complete ‘what-if’ territory.  Many of the ideas introduced earlier in the story are allowed to run to their extremes, and the result was fascinating.

My Rating: 5/5     

I think this is the best novel I’ve read about mind uploading thus far.  It addressed pretty much all the aspects of the technology that I find interesting, including the hardware limitations, the social implications, the effects on those involved, and how the it could stretch the idea of a sense of self.  A variety of perspectives and reactions to mind uploading are presented through the handful of viewpoint characters.  The second part of the story veers off wildly from the ordered near-future world, into the idea of the “dust theory” and the potentially eternal lives of electronic copies.  Permutation City was an engaging story from start to finish, and I am looking forward to reading more of Greg Egan’s work!

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