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Volume 29, Number 2, Winter 2011

Zendegi

By Greg Egan

Night Shade Books, 2010
Reviewed by Chris Hibbert

Greg Egan’s Zendegi features social media being used by an underground movement to topple a government. But this is Greg Egan, so there must be something about silicon consciousness or artificial life involved, right? Well, yes there is, but the political plot works out to be more interesting this time around. Egan’s focal characters are Martin Seymour, an ex-pat American journalist living in Iran and Nasim Golestani, an Iranian scientist who worked in the US but has now returned. At the beginning of the story Golestani is working on the Human Connectome project, which gives her a background in mapping the brain to software. Seymour gets involved when cell-phone pictures help topple the Iranian religious dictatorship.

In the second half of the novel, Golestani works on improving the AI for a virtual reality game company that is struggling to keep up with its competition, while Seymour runs a bookstore in Tehran. Golestani starts incorporating data and software from the Connectome project into the NPCs, which raises the ire of fundamentalists. Seymour, meanwhile, has contracted a fatal disease, and wants to find a way to ensure that someone he trusts will continue to provide guidance to his son, and hits on the idea of getting Golestani to build an artificial mind for him.

Egan’s depiction in Diaspora of the development of consciousness in artificial minds was ground-breaking, but nothing of similar scope happens here. There are many scenes in virtual reality, but the story-telling emphasis is on Seymour’s attention to influencing his son’s maturation. The descriptions of the development of the artificial consciousnesses focused on brain mapping rather than awareness. In the end, the characters decide that the simulacrum of Seymour isn’t up to the task of mentoring his son, which renders many of the interesting conflicts and questions moot. The protesters against enslaving artificial being can be pacified with a promise to keep them below the level of a simple automaton, and Golestani doesn’t have to grapple with her own moral sensibilities about just how conscious they might become. It feels like Egan really side-stepped the issue here. And his solution doesn’t do anything to prevent other developers from taking the same step later.

It’s especially bad because Egan has previously made it clear that understands these issues. His Diaspora, and Permutation City directly address issues related to artificial consciousness. In the latter work, his characters explore a large variety of different scenarios of partial experience, and directly discuss the issues concerning how real they are as persons, and what rights a partially aware entity should have.

While the story is well-written, topical, and engaging, the liberty-related themes are sparse and limited. The populace revolts against a corrupt dictatorship, but that’s more celebration than presentation of issues. Artificial creatures are developed, but never get advanced enough for their rights to be a serious question.

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