There’s something to be said for science fiction authors being willing to sacrifice some of the hard science to tell a more human story. After all, when you boil it down the most engaging narratives, even in sci-fi, are those that get across something meaningful about their characters – all while exploring ideas about science and the human condition. But it’s particularly surprising when someone like Australian author Greg Egan – who, while somewhat renowned for his very hard sci-fi writing credentials, isn’t always seen as a character writer – manages to tell a story like Zendegi, in which the science (while interesting and relevant) rightly feels like a backdrop to the more ‘real’ experiences of his characters and the cultural world they inhabit.
In Zendegi, Egan charts two parallel stories set in an authentic feeling and brilliantly realised near future Iran. The first introduces Martin Seymour, an Australian journalist who decides to settle and raise a family there after reporting on their democratic revolution. The other centres on an Iranian political émigré and neuroscientist called Nasim, who returns home from the States and gets involved in an artificial intelligence project based around Zendegi – a complex online virtual gaming world. When tragedy strikes Martin’s young family, and he himself discovers that he is slowly dying, it just so happens that Nasim has inadvertently created a means of copying and preserving a human consciousness while trying to impart more realistic responses to Zendegi’s AI avatars. When the two are brought together, Martin struggling with the realisation that he’s about to leave his son without a father and Nasim battling to keep Zendegi afloat, they decide to use the game to create a copy of Martin’s consciousness.
It all serves as an excellent backdrop to an examination about just what makes us human, as Egan explores the moral, religious, scientific and even cultural implications of electronically mapping the human consciousness. But rather than losing its heart as a polemic or treatise of the morality of artificial intelligence creation, Zendegi is a very human story, and the implications of all this to the well drawn characters are what drives the novel. What works so well is the way in which Egan weaves little touches and extrapolations of the current ways in which we use technology like social networking, communication nets and, of course, the potential of online virtual worlds into his believable narrative.
Even better is the deft touch with which Egan handles the nuances of Iranian culture, and translates them into more than just mere atmosphere. It’s the kind of cultural understanding and respect that suggests deep research, or even a spell in the country or at least some time with its people. He manages to show a culture that perhaps isn’t as well understood as we might like in a very sensitive light, showing them as a people who, just like any other, have a yearning for freedom, but will tackle the future and all its advances in a way all their own.
While generally well written, with dialogue that feels worlds above some of Egan’s earlier work, Zendegi can, admittedly, feel like it’s dragging its feet, particularly midway through. But as its tragic story draws to a close, both its ideas and narrative come together for a fantastic emotional and intellectual payoff that is as mature as it is heart-rending – making it all worthwhile.