Diaspora (1997) by Greg Egan

Don't miss out on other works by Greg Egan:
Permutation City (1994) Book Review
Available works by Greg Egan


Diaspora is set in the far future in a world where bioengineering has led to a speciation of humanity and virtual reality has given birth to simulated lifeform communities known as polises. Greg Egan envisions a space-faring civilisation based solely on simulated lifeforms. Diaspora extrapolates from the early-stage simulated lifeform introduced in Egan’s earlier novel Permutation City (1994), exploring what it means to be human in the process.

Diaspora opens with the birth of a virtual citizen named Yatima who unlike many other virtual citizens has no human ancestry. Yatima receives its education within the Konishi polis – a community dedicated to pondering abstract mathematics and philosophy – a fast-forwarded process that takes three days of real-time (virtual time is 800 times faster than real-time). When a gamma ray burst destroys the Earth’s atmosphere, causing mass extinction, Yatima and her friend Inoshiro take it upon themselves (polises have remained intact as they are buried deep in the Russian tundra) to gather up human survivors, trying to convince the them to upload their minds to the polises. They can move around on the surface by uploading to abandoned anthropoid robots known as gleisners. Meanwhile polises are planning a migration from Earth called the Diaspora. The bulk of the novel follows the Carter-Zimmerman polis, a community devoted to physics and understanding the cosmos, as it ventures deep into space, the narrative rotating back and forth between different cloned instances of the same cast of characters.

Greg Egan’s background in mathematics not only adds strength to his highly detailed, hard science based world building, but it also defines his sleek, confident and tight style. His detailed account of Yatima’s birth, the thousands of simulated iterations it rapidly goes through, is based on equal measures of human neurobiology and self-learning algorithms. Yatima gradually becomes self-aware and there is something very poetic about how it learns by trial and error. Only three days into Yatima’s exponential learning curve and it receives lessons in advanced mathematics.

Yatima encounters a lot of resistance when trying to convince humans to join the polises, but Egan doesn’t reduce the relationship to a simple binary though: bioengineering has long since hollowed out any stable notion of what defines a human. Humans are now called fleshers, their meat bodies the only real common denominator left, and have splintered into different groups according to genetic lines of heritage, the end result of enhancement techniques such as disease-resistance, intelligence amplification, life extension, and adaptability to new environments. Some have even chosen to regress the evolutionary scale, foregoing speech and higher brain functions, in an attempt to return to a more primal way of existence, recalling the Devaki tribe of David Zindell’s series, A Requiem for Homo Sapiens (1993-1998). The divergence of humanity has also given rise to ‘bridgers’ who try to counter the fragmentation by modifying their minds to better mediate between different strains. Egan’s splintering transhumanism is a staple in much postmodern space opera, typically the consequence of rampant consumerism, Bruce Sterling’s influential Schismatrix (1985) an early example.

In sf the trope of machine intelligence often becomes a stepping stone to singularity and apocalypse (David Zindell, Dan Simmons, Vernor Vinge, Michael Swanwick, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross). Egan envisions a much more optimistic future, his polises pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake – a notion also developed in Rudy Rucker’s Realware (2000). He is basically saying that if you remove the human body from the equation you eliminate not only the politics of reproduction and but also existential dread, even if the basic algorithms are based on human biology. As time is experienced differently by simulated lifeforms, polises happily engage in century-, even millennium-long endeavours. Egan manages to overcome the narrative challenges that come with stretching a storyline across space and time, even different universes, the different Carter-Zimmerman clones making discoveries along the way, relaying information to one another over exceptionally long distances.