Plenty of science fiction novels exist that have not been read by as many people as perhaps they should be. ‘Permutation City’ is one of those novels. It was written by the Australian author Greg Egan and published in 1994. It won the John W. Campbell Award for best science fiction novel of the year in 1995. As of 2011, Egan has published 10 novels and over 50 works of short fiction. The quality of his work is consistently high. Unlike many SF authors of Egan’s caliber, he makes few public appearances.
‘Permutation City’ deals with the concept of making computer copies of human brains and uploading them to a storage medium. These copies are just as intelligent and conscious as living humans. Computer brain emulation was not a new SF concept in the 90’s, but ‘Permutation City’ may have described it better than any prior novel.
The timeline of the story switches between the years of 2045 and 2050. Climate change has devastated some regions and the economy is more global than in today’s world. Computer power and memory have become a form of currency traded on the QIPS Exchange (quadrillion instructions per second).
The story follows the lives of several people. A Sydney resident named Paul Durham is a controlling force in the novel, and in the later timeline his schemes become more convoluted. Durham experiments on mental copies of himself and has little empathy for these copies. Therefore, the original man is not a likeable character, but the reader may care about the fate of some copies.
Durham hires an artifical universe enthusiast named Maria to design an Autoverse program capable of evolving artifical life from microbial forms into higher life forms. This requires more computer power than exists, so Durham strings Maria along while he hatches larger plans. After performing his experiments, Durham becomes a proponent of a radical idea called Dust Theory which postulates that there is no difference between math and physics, and that all mathematically possible structures exist that can be computed.
‘Permutation City’ is a great novel that compels the reader to think more carefully about the amorphous nature of the universe and individual identity. I am reminded of the first part of an Einstein quote that says, “A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest…a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”
Once we become aware of the looming possibility of uploading mental copies to various locations, we realize that perceiving one life as the center of reality is vain and egotistical, and it is just as short-sighted to believe that we should have total control of mental copies of ourselves that establish divergent experiences.