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Sunday, November 07, 2010

Review: Zendegi

Zendegiis Greg Egan's latest novel about Iran, its society, the possibility of uploading humans into cyberspace, and virtual reality. I panned his last novel, but with this novel I think Egan has redeemed himself and entered a new phase of his development as a novelist.

The novel revolves around just one character, Martin Seymour, a reporter who is assigned to Iran to cover the elections. A revolution happens during his assignment, he covers it, falls for an Iranian woman, and settles in the country. Reading this segment of the book is a lot like reading real-time reportage. One feels as though he was there with Seymour, a laudable achievement. We see him develop friendships with the locals, and since Egan knows he can't write romance, he carefully scurries off the stage at that part of the story and cleverly advances the timeline. I did not realize that he had worked around his weakness until well after I finished the book.

The second half of the book deals with more traditional science fiction elements. We see the rise of virtual reality parlors as entertainment centers, and then get to observe the rise of human simulation as part of the games. We get to see first hand the motivations behind human upload technology (all funded by someone who sounds a lot like the wealthy multi-millionaires we've heard about), and what the potential pitfalls are.

What I like about this novel is how realistic it is. The technology doesn't magically work overnight just because the protagonist wants it to. Bad things happen to good people, without redemption and frequently without there being a reason for it. Egan is unflinching in his portrayal of what society will make of this, and what the realistic options are for someone who is put in Martin Seymour's predicament. Unlike previous novels, I actually cared about what happened to the protagonist, and I was left in a mild state of shock at the end of the book.

As a science fiction book, it does not break new ground, and covers only a few new concepts, far short of his most recent short story collection. Nevertheless as a novelist, Egan has succeeded in breaking past his previous issues with characterization. Recommended.

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