Permutation City (1994) by Greg Egan

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Diaspora (1997) Book Review
Available works by Greg Egan


Set around 2050, Permutation City introduces a richly detailed diorama of the transition stage between uploading brain scans and self-sustaining virtual lifeforms. By leaving the body behind – moving beyond the trope of  ‘jacking in’ – the novel is a natural successor to Cyberpunk’s enquiries into the mind/body split. In many ways Permutation City is the genesis story of Egan’s later Diaspora (1997) which envisions a late-stage space faring society of simulated life. Permutation City won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1995). 

Paul Durham is convinced that ultimately there is no difference between real and simulated life. In a world where processing power is subject to scarcity, he pitches rich individuals to finance his idea of building an entirely self-sustaining artificial lifeform that is independent from outside control. He baptises it Permutation City. Paul partners with Maria Deluca who excels in the Autoverse, a virtual platform for building simulated, self-replicating biological lifeforms that are not necessarily subject to the known laws of physics. Paul takes the deep plunge into his own creation by committing suicide, and countless iterations later in the life of the virtual world he wakes up Maria. She learns that her Autoverse experiments have generated an alien race of intelligent insect-like swarms on a planet called Lambert, a processing-power greedy simulation that threatens to derail Permutation City.

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. While his vision of early stage simulated life style-wise is the very different from Rudy Rucker’s messy evolutionary account of machine intelligence in the Ware tetralogy (1982-2000), the haphazardness of humanity’s relationship with science – the unintentional development of a virtual alien species specifically – that also defines Permutation City, comes close to Rucker’s premises. Still, Egan’s roadmap to simulated life follows a step-by-step approach, analogous to how the online gaming world of today only gradually releases ever-more sophisticated platforms. The online gaming analogy also applies to Maria who starts out merely as an Autoverse enthusiast, a gamer addicted to playing God in a simulated chemistry lab, watching her designed molecules evolve into simulated lifeforms.

It is early days for the industry of brain uploads and authorities are only just beginning to discuss the legal implications and need for regulation. Should a new property rights system be put in place? Should Copies (brain uploads) have human rights? Do authorities have the right to trawl through uploaded minds if a crime has been committed? Egan envisions a scenario that is familiar to today’s world, authorities playing catch-up whenever a new, powerful technology is launched. By the same token, as society is only just waking up to a brave new world of brain scanning and all of the implications it entails, it is met with a lot of resistance. There are teething problems to deal with as well. Copies report sensations of artificiality and inauthenticity, and simulations take up a proportionally large chunk of global processing capacity.

Egan also works a rich-poor divide into the narrative. Only those with means – typically the old and rich – can afford to use the new technology in any meaningful way. While rich Copies can maintain board seats and continue to run their businesses and investments in real-time, the less well off are confined to the slower networks of the Slums which lack the necessary processing power to support the generation of an income. Much more fundamental though, and going to the very heart of what it means to be human, is the question of what it means to live in a society where one’s personality can be altered by the click of a button, where a self-directed mutations can be applied at will. And once you have taken the plunge, why not get rid of petty jealousies, obsessive thoughts, depressions, guilt? Why not add new talents, upgrade to Sumerian archaeologist or Master of Shotokan karate?