It’s 2012 and Australian web journalist Martin Seymour is posted to Iran to cover the elections. He’s soon caught up in massive protest demonstrations and sees at first hand the violence of the regime thugs, the Basijis. He also meets up with a female activist called Mahnoosh, although at this point their relationship is wary. As the first third of the novel ends, the regime is tottering.
Meanwhile in the United States, Nasim Golestani, a young research scientist is working on the Human Connectome Project. In the spirit of the human genome project, this program is designed to computer-model the detailed neuron-connectivity of the human brain and so explore every aspect of human brain functioning, perhaps even consciousness.
In preliminary work, Nasim has been granted access to detailed brain maps of nearly a thousand zebra finches. What she needs to do is find a way to configure a computer representation of the primary data so as to reproduce the sound of the adult finch’s song. Her idea is to create a neural network functional model and adjust the parameters until she succeeds: at the end of part 1 this has worked out but the Human Connectome Project itself has failed to win funding. In despair, she decides to return to her homeland, Iran, and play a role in the ongoing revolution there.
We now move forwards in time by fifteen years. Part 2 is set in the Iran of 2027-28. The country is an imperfectly-democratic Muslim republic and Martin is married to Mahnoosh with a young son, Javeed. Meanwhile Nasim has become a senior executive in Zendegi-ye Behtar, a multi-player immersive virtual reality environment. The name means ‘Better Life’ in the Iranian language Farsi.
In short order, Mahnoosh is killed in a traffic accident and Martin is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Who is going to bring up his son in accordance with decent western liberal values? Certainly not his best Iranian friend Omar, an otherwise decent and pleasant chap but (in Martin’s view) endowed with casually racist and xenophobic views plus an unenlightened attitude towards women. There is only one solution: Martin must have his brain scanned by Nasim’s company and be inserted into Zendegi (where his son loves to hang out) so that after death Martin can continue to be Javeed’s moral chaperone.
Nasim has her own problems. In the intervening years the Human Connectome Project has finally got under way and she now has access to enormous amounts of human brain-scan data on the web. Using her functional modeling approach she is able to populate Zendegi with ‘Proxies’ based on fragments of real human personality, which also accounts for Martin’s interest in working with her.
Soon, however, Zendegi is under cyber-attack from a shadowy organization called ‘The Cis-Humanist League’. As their spokesperson explains, ‘no consciousness without autonomy’ – the CHL is opposed to creating fragments of human personality which it considers demeaning, if not outright slavery. You should either do nothing, or ‘if you want to make it human, make it whole’. Zendegi must sign up to this ethical program or get trashed. Events rapidly move to the denouement.
So, what do we make of this?
The first thing which strikes the reader is how well-researched this novel is. Egan spent time in Iran during 2008 (which he wrote up in an extensive trip diary) and has visited all the locations of the novel. His visualization of Zendegi is detailed and compelling, as is his conception of what an effective cyber-attack on a global commercial VR system would look like. Similarly, his is an insider’s view of how a Human Connectome Project could be put together.
So Egan did the science bit well, as usual. Things hold up less well in other areas. I have to say that most of the characters are pretty unpleasant. Martin is self-righteous, smugly sure of the superiority of his own value system, judgmental and controlling. We don’t see much of his wife, Mahnoosh but she comes across as self-willed, impulsive and emotionally immature. The son, Javeed, is by turns ill-mannered and needy. Nasim is a blander personality but too easily won over by the Neo-Luddite arguments of the cyber-terrorist CHL. It all ends rather badly.
Egan started his career excited by science and technology and that enthusiasm has never left him. In his writings about ‘Permutation City’ (see FAQ6 here) he became concerned about the rights of sentient artificial intelligences which future research programs might create. And so we come to Zendegi, a polemical tract against irresponsible AI. Unfortunately, his attempts to push his ethical concerns have undermined the storytelling integrity of this novel.
We should not be deaf to Greg Egan’s concerns about the rights of emulated personalities but the policy he proposes – ‘if you want to make it human, make it whole’ –seems both too restrictive and too woolly. Who’s to know what ‘whole’ really means, and wouldn’t that mindlessly stop ‘better’ as well as ‘worse’?
Egan is concerned for call-center workers displaced by armies of replicated partial-emulations, working as unknowing slaves. But emulated consciousnesses will be people, both to themselves and others and will need rights as well as protection. Suppose an emulated person wants to be replicated a thousand times and that each version wants to work in a call center to pay for their computer time? The economics could still kill a lot of jobs but perhaps the resulting productivity benefits would be socially useful, like the elimination of manual farming by mechanization. Maybe it’s a good thing?
In summary, the arrival of the kind of technology described in ‘Zendegi’ would unleash a storm of social, legal and regulatory changes which a whole SF novel might struggle to engage with. ‘Zendegi’ could have been that novel if Egan had not chosen to ‘just say no’.