PERMUTATION CITY by Greg Egan
Millennium 1994
ISBN 1 85798 174 X

Kathleen Ann Goonan
Reviews

PERMUTATION CITY by Greg Egan

This review originally appeared in the SCIENCE FICTION EYE. This text may differ slightly from the edited version.

In his latest book, PERMUTATION CITY, Greg Egan melds virtual reality, a worldwide computer net, and the rules embedded in cellular automata, then masterfully extrapolates an intense, strange future in which his characters explore, with angst and determination, the meaning of personal human identity and the nature of consciousness itself.

The idea of removing memories from the brain and depositing them in a more stable medium, such as a healthy new body or a computer, is not new. But with the solid grounding of someone familiar with computers and the theories of consciousness which are the offspring of their existence, Egan takes this concept farther, faster, than anyone has before. He takes a searching and definitive look at the dilemma those who propose to be "uploaded" into a computer will face, if ever they are "downloaded" into a fresh new clone or swim in a warm Extropian bath of pure consciousness mingling with others in their new mental sea. It is the dilemma of personality, the question of what truly does make us ourselves and no one else. But this is not all he looks at by any means. Egan has serious questions about the nature of physical reality, the nature of consciousness, and the intersection of the two.

If you had several million dollars, would you give it all in a gamble that you might possibly live forever in a world interleaved within the particles of this world? What if you had already extended your life as a Copy in virtual reality, and had the semi-guarantee of continuing on as long as the international computer net lasted--would you then find this attractive?

To leave the body--even a virtual one dependant on the computer net--behind would be quite an epic mutiny, as Paul Durham, in a poem found in a psychiatric ward, may have put it. And since he is the main character, we find ourselves immersed in his amazing flight from the physical world into a world that is purely, entirely, and absolutely mental. And infinite to boot. Yet Egan grounds us so thoroughly in the nuts and bolts of this endeavor that such a flight actually seems, in the reading, quite possible. But is such an alternative attractive? Would it be heaven or hell?

In this version of the future, the year 2045 takes place in a world where the very rich can afford to be Copies--scanned into an optical cubic meter then piped into the worldwide computer network, where they are free to form their own physical reality, and even to arrange to forget that they once had true physical lives, though few seem to take this course. Instead, most hold doggedly to any shreds of identity they possibly can.

The computing power needed to maintain a Copy's environment is great, and though they can communicate with the outside world their "speed of consciousness," so to speak, is slower by several magnitudes, but can be matched depending on how much the outsider wishes to spend, in time and in money, on the interface. Life as a Copy can be subjectively unpleasant. But it's better than nothing. They are isolated from the real world because of speed, because all of their "bodily sensations" are created by algorithms, not biology:

A Copy possessed no individual atoms or molecules; every organ in its virtual body came in the guise of specialized sub-programs which knew (in encyclopaedic, but not atomic, detail) how a real liver or brain or thyroid gland functioned . . . but which couldn't have solved Schrodinger's equation for so much as a single protein molecule. All physiology, no physics.

And, of course, the verisimilitude of their surroundings does not entirely correspond to the reality of physical life. It is clearly a fake. Most Copies are physically dead, though their "critical mass" of wealth serves to pay for an interface with real-world lawyers and bankers who handle their affairs, as well as to maintain their virtual environment in greater or lesser magnitude. But in our world they no longer have legal rights or a vote.

Copies can and do interact with each other. Egan's virtual community is rich in detail. One character, who dies accidentally before acquiring enough wealth for an optimal life as a Copy, is visited in the virtual slums by a charitable woman. She takes him to the Slow Clubs, where poorer Copies like himself meet, and shows him how to live more fully on the fringes. Before Paul Drummond, few with a viable body, though they may visit a Copy in their virtual world, have ever chosen to burn their bridges and stay in such an existence.

Egan's description of how unsettling such a life might be is detailed and superb, digging deep into the unspoken givens which make human life worth living. Copies of people scanned just before dying often choose to "bail out" rather than remain condemned to life as an almost entirely solipsistic entity. It is difficult for Copies to cope with this enormous manipulative magnitude, where there are few restraining givens. They are able to decide to be cheerful about it by changing their programming. One Copy does so by, when depressed, by reaching for a whisky glass filled with "a bracing mixture of Confidence and Optimism," although he could just as easily have chosen not to be so literal.

Maria Deluca is a hardheaded, thoroughly practical (though temporarily insolvent) programmer who does not suffer fools gladly--nor being fooled. She is addicted to playing with a virtual bacterium called A. lamberti after the creator of the Autoverse, a virtual world which follows laws with no atomic reality. The Autoverse laws, however, are much more finely detailed at the microscopic level than those governing the lives of Copies. Unable to stay away from the Autoverse, Maria achieves--allows--a mutational breakthrough in A. lamberti which brings her to the attention of Paul Durham.

Paul Durham is insane. Although released from a mental hospital after nanosurgery correcting a surfeit of activity in his prefrontal cortex and declared cured, Maria finds him still insane. He is much more obsessed than she, and his goals are much more grandiose. He believes that Copies can achieve immortality through a scheme he has meticulously devised, based on an idea he calls "the dust theory." Maria understands the way he thinks, but his logic maddens her with its flawlessness, for she finds its import absurd and frightening.

Copies can choose to split--indeed, at certain junctures may be forced to split, which is a metaphoric and a real death. If a Copy splits, which one gets to keep the consciousness of a continuity of self? They can also be easily terminated, with apparently little remorse by those in the physical world. Copies definitely pass the Turing Test; they are conscious and, as such, find it difficult to give up themselves to an alternate future or termination even though the being from which they were copied still lives. They are separate from the beings which engendered them. And once separate, their lives diverge. Copies therefore do not truly extend the lives of those who have died; they are themselves, and their own lives then begin. Paul proposes to take this one giant step further.

He has experienced an epiphany of sorts while living (without knowing it at the time) simultaneously as himself and as a Copy of himself in the virtual environment, and returns with the memory of this epiphany intact. Paul believes that consciousness, whether it exists in a human body, as an AI, or as a Copy in a virtual environment, is identity, and that it can exist purely, without physical cause, without being supported by cause and effect and without sequential memory or linear progression; that individual sentience can exist without a physical base or physical trappings; that its pattern can be scattered throughout the universe and coalesce without knowing the dark spaces between the flashes of coalescence. As always in Egan's work tendrils of pure, unadorned philosophy flare into view from time to time. Paul's crowning insanity, in the eyes of Maria, who has done contract work unwittingly for his cause, is that he believes that an almost mystical transfer of consciousness--of the patterns of consciousness and of identity--to the TVC universe is possible. This Turing/von Neumann/Chiang universe is a cellular automaton raised, literally, to the nth degree. The steps needed to take consciousness from a computer-net supported virtual reality to the TVC universe seem, when explained by Drummond to Maria, sensible, possible, and at the same time horrible, almost evil, and certainly philosophically dishonest and repugnant. Though she believes that Paul's overall conclusions are insane, Maria is infuriated that each stage of his reasoning is entirely logical.

Paul Durham and Maria Deluca are both fascinating characters--equally matched intellectually, with the same quirks and predilections, yet morally--Maria thinks--at odds. If we look at their lives with peripheral vision they seem sparse and strange, exactly as Paul reacts to his knowledge that it is only his "power of observation," as it were, which creates the detail in what he observes in the virtual environment. He knows that the periphery of his environment is unformed, and that the world around him only comes into existence because of his conscious observation of it. Maria and Paul both live only for the life of their minds, and both are bent on launching new forms of viable life; Paul stakes everything on his vision of the true nature of consciousness, and Maria desires to see her world of artificial life flourish and evolve, perhaps eventually to sentience.

Egan takes some of the most intriguing ideas afloat in the zeitgeist today and weaves them into the be-all and end-all book about virtual reality and beyond, detailing an existence where humans have godlike creational powers and must deal with the results of those abilities. The tenets of Artificial Life, with its own launch pad of rules, play a large role in the book, and Egan's ideas concerning the quantum nature of being infuse the whole. Eventually he transmutes his initial vision of Copies who are split into parallel beings into a universe of parallel worlds supporting an infinite number of parallel, slightly different lives. Alien contact, dance as communication, virtual reality--all here, and more, but never frivolously; always with straight-on seriousness which rings with the possibility of complete viability. Maria's straight-man stance siphons incredulity from the mind of the reader and leaves it open to the utter grandeur of Paul's vision and its results.

The book is shot through with delightful yet serious complexity which is sparsely elegant. It rewards close reading. Using only a few timelines, Egan suggests infinite timelines. With only a few characters, he evokes all of humanity's struggles, fears, and hopes. PERMUTATION CITY is a fascinating trip, an exhilarating trip, a provocative trip. You should try it.

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Copyright 1994 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.