Permutation City – Greg Egan (1994)
Egan, although a completely different stylist, can be considered thematically to be a direct descendant of Philip K Dick since Egan explores the same philosophical territory. In both authors’ work the questions are asked ‘What does ‘real’ mean?’, ‘What is the nature of identity?’ and ‘What does it mean to be human?’
A young woman, Maria Deluca, who earns a patchy living writing security software, spends some of her time running simulations in the Autoverse, a shared online space where virtual micro-organisms can be created in tailored habitats and left to evolve. So far, no one has managed to come up with the right combination of factors that have led to a successful virtual organism. When she is the one to make the breakthrough she receives a call from a man offering her a job.
This is a world where one can download one’s personality and achieve a form of immortality. Due to the constraints of dataspace, life as a virtual consciousness runs some seventeen times slower than in the ‘real’ world. Her benefactor, Paul Durham, has told her that he has found a way to create a virtual city whose processing power expands exponentially. It is a virtual universe which is, in effect, creating itself.
He also claims to have existed in several other parallel worlds and committed suicide in order that his ‘copies’ could continue until he discovered the secret of his self-perpetuating city. Several millionaire ‘copies’ have been approached and offered the option to download their minds into the city.
Her job, if indeed that was his motive, was to seed a planet in the virtual solar system with her Autoverse bacteria in order that they can evolve.
Unaware that he has scanned her mind for such a purpose, she awakens in the virtual city several thousand subjective years into its existence, at a time when not only has the Autoverse planet evolved intelligent life, but the ruling figures in the city are debating whether to make contact.
Undoubtedly brilliantly written and boldly conceived, the novel suffers from a lack of cohesion between the various elements, from Maria’s world into Durham’s city is a disorienting leap, made all the more disturbing by the suggestion that we may have viewed the same characters in several parallel universes.
Egan is never an easy read but is, I guarantee, worth persevering with. It’s an experience that will stay with you, and he don’t half make you think.