In Zendegi, Greg Egan has created a beautiful, brilliant, near-future world that expertly explores the consequences of mind-mapping technology in the politically volatile world of Iran.
Zendegi is two stories told in parallel. The first is the story of Martin Seymour, an Australian journalist sent to Iran to cover another disputed election (this one in 2012), and fifteen years afterward, of the new life that he and his family have built in Iran. The second is Nasim Golestani, an Iranian expatriate who, using a new method of electronically mapping human consciousness, has inadvertently created the framework for the future world's most popular MMORPG, "Zendegi." Martin and Nasim discover each other by unfortunate happenstance, and while Zendegi is slowly being destroyed, Nasim and the now-dying Martin try to use the game to preserve a copy of his consciousness, to ensure that Martin's son will always have his father.
With Zendegi, Egan brilliantly walks the slender line that all science fiction authors take it upon themselves to traverse: just how much is a story supposed to be about the science? In this case, Egan fully, perfectly integrates the science into the story, neither using it as a vague premise to explore a moral quandary, nor letting the story become a frame to explore some peculiar scientific theory. Zendegi is as much about understanding how consciousness works mechanically as it is about understand what consciousness means; and Nasim's process of building an artificial consciousness not only unpacks the nature of the mind physically, but also reveals why it's important.
Far from being a treatise on cognitive engineering, or a polemic about the morality of artificial intelligence, Egan reveals that, as ever, the principle motivating factors of science, of religion, and of economics are always those very personal qualities that define an individual character. It shows Zendegi's enormous, virtual MMORPG-world as a new step in what the nature of media and entertainment: a highly-metaphorical process that we use to understand ourselves.
Secondary to all of this, but equally important and well-worth noting is Egan's clear-sighted, sensitive, and illuminating portrayal of the Iranian people. It's easy to, if all you see is American news media, let an entire nation be demonized by its over-zealous religious authority. Refreshingly, Egan reveals Iran to be, as all nations really are, a complex civilization where people all have individual identities. And, like many nations ruled by oppressive theocracies, Iran has a strong, growing population of moderately-religious, regular people who-again, as in most nations-just want to be able to have ordinary, stable lives.
Egan's crystal-clear characterizations of people who are all fundamentally good, decent people, is what serves to ground the piece so thoroughly, and what helps to make its extended meditation on consciousness so worthwhile. Zendegi builds to a heartbreaking, even tragic conclusion, but cathartic in the old-fashioned sense; teary and moving, but it leaves you feeling cleansed, clearer.
Both beautifully written and relentlessly intelligent, Zendegi is like a marvelous, precision-engineered watch. It never sacrifices its thematic content to its science, or it's richly-drawn characters to either, but enmeshes them fully, treating them as the deeply-interconnected pieces of the human experience that they are.
Zendegi is highly recommended. It is available today from Night Shade Books.
Chris Braak is editor of lit & cult/ure blog Threat Quality Press, and emperor of the moon in exile. His credentials, accomplishments, and accolades, are too numerous to list.