This is the second book by Greg Egan that I’ve read. Just like Quarantine before it, I’ve read it without knowing what I were getting into. I’ve picked it up because I wanted to read sci-fi, and a lot of people on the ‘net recommended this one as a prime example of hard science fiction. Now I see why.
The plot of the book is fairly simple – people are trying not to die. But it mostly serves as a framework that holds a plethora of ideas, explorations and philosophical musings; so many, in fact, that I’d be hard-pressed to try and list all of them.
At the beginning of the book the humanity is split into three groups – the fleshers, people like us; the Gleisners, people who have moved their bodies into robots and mostly live in space in our Solar system; and people who uploaded their consciousness into virtual communities (polises) and only live there.
The story follows Yatima since his conception in a polis, immediately jumping into a complex narrative on cognitive development and consciousness: We see his progress from a basic software construct, through a learning period, all the way to achieving self-awareness.
Some of the many questions the book asks are: When you live in a virtual world, should you try to abide to some simulated physical laws? Or just throw everything that doesn’t suit you out the window?
When you can look like anything you desire, is there any point on insisting to even have things like a gender, or a body?
What do you do with yourself, when you can’t die? What will make your continued existence worth it?
If you can alter your perception of time and space, should you even attempt to stay connected to the physical universe you’re no longer really in, or is it better to just turn your back on everything and live like a solipsist, alone, immersed in worlds of your creation?
The book is thick with ideas: the author explains a concept, then explores it thoroughly, then quickly moves on to another. He hints at spectacular feats of engineering, at various moral dilemmas and obligations, explains mathematical concepts, or why it can be useful to think about them. He also shows a (for me) completely unusual approach to thinking about potential alien species, in case we’re not alone in the universe.
I won’t go on; if you’re interested in hard sci-fi, or philosophical conundra of transhumanism, or math, or (well enough) thought out fictitious physical laws with their various consistent consequences, give this book a try.
But as you’ve probably figured out, it isn’t an easy read. I’d listened to an audio version, and had decided to take it as a challenge, because every time my concentration slipped for even a short while, I lost the thread and had to rewind. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously and kept wondering all the while if I even should recommend it to anyone else. I find it hard to judge whether it’d be comprehensible enough to someone who doesn’t dabble in science, or wasn’t trained in math. I think anyone could understand, provided he/she isn’t afraid to use his/her brain, but it probably wouldn’t be as much fun.
In fact, most of the citizens in polises don’t, and the author uses gender-neutral pronouns for them. I said ‘he’, because I didn’t want to have to explain this up front. ↩︎
One of the interesting thoughts there: If we ever met another civilization, why would they ever be hostile toward us, or we toward them? If they can achieve space travel, surely they have figured out how to survive with the resources they already have, or more probably, abstracted their biological needs away, like the humanity did. And there is far more value in learning what the other species went through. ↩︎