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Book cover art by Craig Andrews & Chuck O'Rear (left).
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Set around the mid-21st century, Greg Egan's debut Permutation City tells of a time when humans are being cloned, not biologically, but electronically. The book remains a seminal title in what was then the fledgling transhumanist SF subgenre, that would later evolve towards singularitarian SF. Here, computers possess the ability to make perfect replicas of a person's mind, and install it into a "Copy" in a virtual environment. There are drawbacks to this technology, not the least of which is that the processors that run these copies are nowhere near up to speed to mimic perfectly the real experience of living. Paul Durham has been experimenting with his own Copies, and trying to figure out a way to lower the bail-out rate, resulting when Copies decide they cannot take the sterile environments they are in and elect to be shut down.

Durham believes he has found a way for Copies to live in, literally, their own universe, not even dependent upon computers to run it. He pitches his plan to the Copies of wealthy investors whose flesh-and-blood originals are already dead, playing upon their fear that, if Copies attain even greater legal status down the road than they have now, there might be some sort of digital-age peasant rebellion where the have-nots of the world revolt against the immortal haves, and unplug their mainframes.

Durham recruits a young, female programmer (Egan's only concession to storytelling cliché — gotta get a brainy hottie in there somewhere) to construct for him the rudiments of this universe. Maria Deluca thinks Durham might well be stark raving mad. But he's offering her a lot of money, which she needs because she wants her dying mother's mind scanned before she dies, something her mother looks upon with the purest disdain. Like most transhumanists, Egan has nothing but scorn for people who allow moral qualms to stand in the way of technology. I don't altogether disagree, though I'd lean towards freedom of choice, of course.

Permutation City, surprisingly, doesn't deal much at all with the ethical issues surrounding the idea of duplicating people's minds, even dozens of times, and letting them live for all eternity in some kind of virtual world as autonomous entities. For Egan, it seems a purely scientific question. That's fine, but it does mean that the novel misses out on some important emotional and intellectual dimension. I'm not saying I would have wanted some tiresome and hackneyed scenes in which characters beat their breasts and declaim one way or the other for some moral position. But it's true that the book is, in many ways, as cold and sterile as the digital future it describes. There's little heart, little human passion. Maria argues with Durham, but mainly over the question of whether or not what he's promised to his investors is fraudulent. Deeper ethical concerns — such as who gets to live in this brave new universe, and who decides these things, and whether or not a digitized Copy of a person is really a real person after all — are dealt with perfunctorily.

Overall, I admired the breadth of ideas Egan covers in this book, but Permutation City is far more cerebral than it is entertaining. It's the sort of hard SF written strictly for that contingent of fans who like their SF to read like a graduate-level textbook or tech manual. If you're in that camp, hike the rating substantially northward. It could have used some judicious editing. I applaud Egan's devotion to authenticity in describing the workings of his computerized worlds. But unless you're a programmer or mathematician yourself, you're going to find these stretches of the book to be tediously techie if not altogether incomprehensible.

It is obvious, even from this fascinatingly flawed debut, that Egan is a man of bold ideas. And those are all too rare today in SF. While I found much to admire in my visit to Permutation City, I must say I wouldn't want to live there. But I've flagged Greg Egan all the same, since the next time a trip into humanity's possible posthuman futures is on the agenda, I'm convinced he'll be a most interesting tour guide.