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This review is from: Zendegi (Paperback)Greg Egan is generally noted and acclaimed for his hard science fiction and more for his short stories than his novels. Zendegi is his newest attempt in more mainstream writing, which means that there is a conscious attempt in creating human characters, a story with emotional arcs, some sociological extrapolations and some more easily accessible science (neural networks and virtual reality instead of hard physics).
Egan has produced at least one similar effort before which, like this one, was preceded by some of his hardest and most technical sci-fi at the time. So, Teranesia, came after writing Diaspora and Distress, two masterpieces that dealt with advanced physics (the former) and advanced AI (the latter). Zendegi comes after Incandescence and Schild's Ladder two efforts of similar focus on fascinating extrapolation to the nth degree but also similar neglect to story and characters.
Hard sci-fi in general is lampooned for its technicality and inattention to classic literature devices and Incandescence in particular drew the scathing review of another novelist (Adam Roberts, who also writes sci-fi, but apparently with less distinction), which Egan took exception to and replied by reviewing the review on his website calling it a hatchet job (I think it sort of was the case, too- also, you can't impose classical literature and stylistic standards on hard science fiction; that would be absurd).
So, Zendegi is here, a significantly more mainstream novel- does it work? Yes and no, with the balance tipping more to the `no' than to the 'yes'. That doesn't mean, however, that it's not a notable effort. I won't describe the story at all, since adequate synopses already exist. Instead, I'll make some comments about what I liked and not liked.
Firstly, there is a well-crafted balance between the scientific elements and the actual plot- the plot is mostly driven by: a) sociological and political factors in earlier chapters and b) the characters themselves in latter chapters.
As always, the science here is top notch, the ideas fascinating and the detail not overbearing (I was able to understand everything without resorting to external help. I am not a layman, but not an expert either). I loved the science behind the Human Connectome Project and how they trained neural networks with MRI images, until they hit a roadblock, but also how they worked out of it.
One other example of what I liked: the commercial VR process that grew out of the HCP is put into practice by having the country's most famous footballer's skills mapped onto his virtual counterpart, and the after-effects are quite funny. Also, Egan has changed his style somewhat, there are more humorous incidents and there is an effort to make some characters funny, as well as tragic.
Unfortunately, I have no choice but to gripe about the characters, which is reasonable in this context, because this is presented as a more mainstream science fiction novel. Martin Seymour is actually a benign, dull, well-meaning cardboard cut-out. We are given only two insights into his character. One is in the beginning when he's transferring music from his vinyl to his computer, the other in the end when he's recalling an experience he'd had while covering the war in Afghanistan and this second one is really, not fully capitalised. I think this makes for some severely limited characterisation which is a shame since there are plenty of opportunities to flesh him out (he's been through a revolution, a war, a widowhood, trying to make a living as a foreigner in what is essentially a new country).
Likewise, Nasim has been through some anguish in her own life, since she had to leave Iran while very young and left a dead father there- yet, we hardly learn anything about her either, and in the earlier parts of the book she comes across as sarcastic and cynical (which I suppose is fair, but hardly enough) and in the latter part when aged she is benign, albeit reluctant. I have met Iranians living abroad; they are all very interesting characters and tremendously affected by the situation of their motherland. Some marvellous characterisation opportunities are similarly lost.
At least the characterisation while not inspired is free of platitudes and stereotypes. In this day and age, this counts as a positive.
The one drawback that irked me the most, however, concerns Iran. Egan took a trip there as part of his research. I expected to see more of the tragic history of Iran presented in the book; more on the shameful realpolitik that brought the Shah to the power- and the ironic outcomes of the Islamic revolution which saw the messiahs turn to monsters; more on the social conditions, the economic opportunities, the ethnic tapestry and how all these would play out in a future democracy- instead, we mostly get descriptions of topography and buildings during the riots and a weaving of a classic Persian tale into a scenario for the Zendegi VR system (personally I didn't find this particularly noteworthy, although others may disagree).
As I mentioned before there is some merit on the stylistic aspects of the novel- parts of it, however, remain characteristically dry.
One thing I have discovered about the author is that he worked hard to improve his writing. He was astute in identifying his strengths relatively early on in his professional career and he worked and worked and worked at them until he met with his share of acclaim. I would like to see Egan work on increasing the quality of the sort of writing in Zendegi. He has won the Hugo Award for `Oceanic' (and many other awards also) which was brilliant and not at all hard science fiction. It dealt with religion and in particular the disillusionment of an individual who discovers that core doctrines of his religion are explainable through scientific means. There is nothing to suggest that Egan cannot make the transition to more accessible writing by improving this style and the use of the more classical literature devices.