What happens when your digital self overpowers your physical self? A life in Permutation City is unlike any life to which you're accustomed. You have Eternal Life, the power to live forever. Immortality is a real thing, just not the thing you'd expect. Life is just electronic code. You have been digitized, scanned, and downloaded into a virtual reality program. A Copy of a Copy. For Paul Durham, he keeps making Copies of himself, but the issue is that his Copies keep changing their minds and shutting themselves down. You also have Maria Deluca, who is nothing but an Autoverse addict. She spends every waking minute with the cellular automaton known as the Autoverse, a world that lives by the mathematical "laws of physics." Paul makes Maria an offer to design and drop a seed into the Autoverse that will allow her to indulge in her obsession. There is, however, one catch: you can no longer terminate, bail out, and remove yourself. You will never be your normal flesh-and-blood life again. The question then becomes: Is this what she really wants? Is this what we really want? From the brilliant mind of Greg Egan, Permutation City, first published in 1994, comes a world of wonder that makes you ask if you are you, or is the Copy of you the real you?
Imagine what would happen if our whole personality could be “scanned in” to a computer and encoded as a piece of software, to the point where it could actually make decisions about how to interact with its virtual world. Think avatar, but to the nth degree. In this near future, that is possible, but requires such immense computing power that, as yet, only a handful of dying super billionaires have done it, and they “live on”, enjoying any virtual worlds they like, and still controlling their vast wealth, to ensure they continue to be able to afford this forever. Of course, the future is never certain – will there be a political backlash? Will computer time become too expensive? Will the earth be destroyed, or abandoned? One of the protagonists devises a scheme that will create a virtual world with molecules that can mutate, hoping that eventually (as in, billions of years) this will develop to the point that natural selection starts to work, evolving a “world” independent of any computer (the science got way beyond me at this point, I’m afraid). As well, people can create copies of their software to live in different virtual worlds, as a sort of insurance. There’s a lot of this sort of thing, including what would happen if you lost your wealth – would you just get less and less computer time? – could you “hide” your software code in the cracks, sort of like those annoying ads that pop up if your browser is slow in getting to its destination, in effect becoming an unseen “squatter”, and so on. All very imaginative stuff, which I did find fascinating to think about even though I had to skip over quite a bit of it.
The problem comes when the author tries to build in human/moral/emotional stories. One character was an unexposed killer in “real” life – can he escape his guilt? Is it even “his” anymore? Another is desperately trying to raise money to allow her dying mother to be scanned, which the mother is resisting – what are the emotions involved? What will “people” actually do with all that time? What do “self” and “identity” mean if you can’t be sure whether you are the original or a copy? And how could you tell? All these interesting questions are introduced, via potentially interesting characters, but none are fully developed or resolved. I found that very frustrating, and it knocked down what could have been a great read to just okay for me. If I want to read about the potential for AI I can read a science book, but a novel needs to do something different.
It's excellent, and believable.
At this far of a remove, I don't remember the details beyond modeling a slightly simpler universe inside of a computer, but It opened up a new world of science fiction for me. This was one of the first science fiction books that I read the year it was published, and thus the first without the "past looking forward through a present not my own" feeling that Asimov and Heinlein and many others gave me.