Learn more Shop now Learn more Shop now Shop now Shop now Shop now Shop now Learn More Shop now Learn more Click Here Shop Kindle Amazon Music Unlimited for Family Shop now Shop Women's Shop Men's

Customer reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars
12
3.3 out of 5 stars
Zendegi
Format: Paperback|Change


on 27 July 2013
I generally look forward to Greg Egan books - he's one of the few authors that produces genuinely mind-expanding stuff rather than the plethora of cyber-space me-toos and plot-free action extravaganzas which clog the bookshops. Which I'm afraid left me feeling very let down by this book. The initial "getting to know the characters" phase of the novel grinds on monotonously to the very end and the cyberspace interludes are seriously uninteresting (they reminded me of a bad Xanth novel) - couple this with a seriously lacklustre ending and there's just nothing to recommend the book to anyone who likes technological Science Fiction. (If you read this Greg, then sorry, I do really like most of your output - this one must have been a cuckoo chick).
0Comment| One person found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 26 June 2010
The idea of mapping and uploading human consciousness isn't new to science fiction. Indeed, Egan has explored it in a couple of his earlier novels and in his short stories. Other SF writers have done so too. But Zendegi isn't stale or hackneyed; quite the opposite in fact.

Zendegi is the name of a virtual reality role-playing game whose designers manage to create game characters from partially mapped human minds. They do so for commercial reasons, to give their product an edge in an increasingly competitive VR market place. It's ironic that something so complex and amazing should be applied to such mundane purposes - entertainment and money-making. Egan juxtaposes this scenario with another far more worthwhile one - using a virtual version of a dying parent as way of ensuring that the child doesn't grow up totally without parental guidance. But what are the moral implications of doing this? And what other applications, altruistic or otherwise, might such technology lead to, especially given the increasingly commercial nature of scientific research?

Exploring big questions like these is what great SF is all about, and Egan's treatment of this particular topic is fascinating. Equally fascinating is the setting - a near-future Iran which is now democratic but where religious ideology is still a factor.

By contrast with his previous two novels, Egan balances the science and the storytelling really well, creating believable characters and putting them in a setting that, while speculative, is eminently plausible. There's also a touch of humour where, early in the novel, one of the characters is confronted by a science journalist whose previous works include `The Sociobiology of The Simpsons' and `The Metaphysics of Melrose Place'. Ha ha! Shades of the pretentious academics in Teranesia whose careers have been forged in the cutting edge fields of X-Files Theory and Diana Studies.

The characters in the book are not heroic, but they are very human. The story does not have a dramatic climax, but it leaves you thinking about morality, about politics, about business, about humanity's future. It's a provocative speculation on the possibilities of technology and it's Egan's best novel in years.
0Comment| 3 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 11 August 2011
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.
0Comment| One person found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 1 August 2010
I've always been ambivalent about Greg Egan's science fiction. On the one hand, he is unmistakeably one of the most erudite, intelligent, and thoughtful authors who have ever turned their hand to SF. On the other, his books are decidedly not the kind you can't put down. Gripping, suspenseful, exciting - those are the qualities you do not expect from an Egan novel, and "Zendegi" differs only slightly in that respect. It does differ, because I suspect that Egan has made a big effort to change his style and subject matter, and that does come across very clearly. Whereas many of his previous books are set in the far future, with characters who are barely human or utterly inhuman, "Zendegi" takes place in the very near future (2012-2028, to be precise). And it is set in Iran - the very crucible of today's most agonising political, religious, and cultural disputes. Instead of abstract mathematical and scientific issues of quantum theory or virtual reality, "Zendegi" deals with flesh and blood human beings and their everyday lives. Actually, virtual reality does play a large part in the plot, but Egan brilliantly shows how it might first impinge on ordinary people: of course, as entertainment! I was reminded of Clay Shirky's idea, in "Cognitive Surplus", that TV series are today's equivalent of the gin that lubricated social change in 18th century London. Maybe commercial VR experiences, like the eponymous Zendegi, will be the next step along that path.

I very much wanted to warm to "Zendegi", the more so because of its obvious good-heartedness and worthiness. Unfortunately, a rebellious part of my brain kept on resenting what it saw as Egan's moral lecturing. Perhaps the Iran of today and the next few years was simply too controversial and emotionally charged a background to choose? The difficulty is summed up in a few words exchanged between Martin, the protagonist, and Omar, the friend who is to bring up Martin's young son Javeed if Martin dies in an imminent surgical operation. "I know he's your son," says Omar. "I know you want him to have your ideas, not mine". Martin is a liberal atheist from Australia, while Omar is a relatively modern, open-minded Iranian Muslim who nevertheless has old-fashioned ideas about how women should behave (for instance). Martin does not want Javeed to acquire Omar's "bigoted" ideas, but his own "correct" ones; but it never occurs to him to wonder if it might not be best to let Javeed come to his own conclusions (as indeed he is bound to in the long run). And isn't the very belief that one's own ideas are the only correct ones the essence of bigotry?

That's my personal reaction to "Zendegi", and it's quite possible you will read the book with great interest and end up wondering why I got so worked up about the moral aspects. As in all of Egan's books, you learn a huge amount rather effortlessly - which is one of the reasons I find them so hard to read quickly. (I need to stop and think about what I have learned every few pages). There is the technical matter of approaching VR and the simulation of human personality by approximations, so to speak, by the complementary techniques of analysing sliced-up brains and monitoring living ones while they think or act. And there is the political and cultural information about Iran, the huge changes bubbling away under the surface and occasionally breaking out in violence or revolution. It's not science fiction as we know it, Jim; but it is a very good book indeed and one that I strongly recommend - if you like your science fiction realistic, fact-based, and above all thought-provoking.
33 Comments| 6 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 21 December 2011
After reading 'Zendegi' for a while I got worried. Where was the science stretched to the limit of believability? Where were the maths lessons? All the technology we get in the opening is Martin, a journalist, being told how to digitise his record collection, as he is off to Iran to cover politics there. While covering an anti-cleric demo, he meets Manoosh, an activist helping run a mesh network to organise the demonstrators. Meanwhile Nasim is working on something much more cutting edge, a project trying to map thought processes, but is not getting anywhere in obtaining funding to continue. She decides to return home to Iran.

Time in the narrative jumps forward from 2012 to 2027. The clerical regime has gone and been replaced by a secular government. Martin and Manoosh are married and have a son, Javeed. Nasim is now heading research for 'Zendegi, a virtual reality MMORPG. She designs realistic non-player characters, by emulating real brain activity to drive them. To stay ahead of the competition she has the idea to create a copy of the brain activity of a famous Iranian footballer and then allow others to 'play' him in teams in Zendegi. But tragedy strikes and brings bring Martin and Nasim together for a very special project...

So, this is not a standard 'Egan' novel. It is very personal and emotional. The technology is subservient to people. Yet some things did not work for me. The politics never quite convinced, seeming more like wishful thinking. Iran seemed very 'flat' as a locale and did not come across as being much different from anywhere else. The science fiction elements were interesting but hardly pushed the envelope. All in all then, this novel is an interesting departure in style and content that does not quite take off.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 3 December 2014
My first impression of this was that a cloud of foreboding hangs over the narrative, and after re-reading a couple of times I know why. Beneath the Middle-Eastern influence, the story seems to be about themes of AI and consciousness transcending biology, but the story's real heart is how we face our mortality. Egan shows us the darkness that can result, how we can rob ourselves of what precious time we have left in the futile pursuit of a sense of closure, and how, in our desperation to rest in peace we can fill our last days with anxiety and loneliness.

As ever, Egan's exploration of his characters' feelings and motives is impeccable and the story fascinating, but this is unavoidably a dark book. Don't expect it to make you laugh, and make sure your frame of mind is steady before delving in.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 22 July 2013
I read this when it came out, and the description of the revolution foreshadows the Arab Spring events. Substitute Egypt for Iran and it's there. In this book Egan corrects his earlier propensity for making hi-tech stuff work seamlessly and first time. He describes the problems of modelling the world and trying to make computers "think" like people in a much more honest way than in his earlier work. This looks like his real-life experience of programming coming through. Impressive but imperfect technology IS used here to create great games and aid the revolution, but it cannot fix everything and everyone. A very thoughtful work - it won't please the lovers of American film style "SF", where everything is reduced to a resolution by fist-fight, but should appeal to people who tire of such fantasy.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 5 May 2012
This is a very morbid and depressing book.

It is a near future book so it isn't hard science-fiction in the same way as most of Egan's books.

The plot is well thought out and the speculation on where technology is going is as intelligent as always and, almost frighteningly, believable.

The pace is slow, flashes of action but a lot of plodding and soap opera.

The problem is that the book is so focused on being believable and realistic that it is never entertaining just grim.

An interesting intellectual exercise but not an enjoyable read.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 7 September 2012
This is the weakest of the many Greg Egan books I have read. It lacks the imagination of some of his best work and moves away from the kind of hard SF you expect from Egan. There is too much emphasis on a slow building (and admittedly moving) situation in Iran and the life of an Australian journalist. Even the descriptions of time spent in virtual reality are kind of flat, probably because they are all set in a VR suitable for a 6 year old Iranian boy.

It just doesn't work for me.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
VINE VOICEon 13 August 2010
To be honest this book is a none starter right from the get go. It's pretty mundane, the science within pretty standard and all in all a very weak principle cast member who really doesn't achieve much within this title. It's slow, it's got no real pace and at the end of the day a book that is well below what I've come to expect from this established author. A real let down and a title that I felt was more of a book that relies on the authors name to sell rather than one that should have made it to the final printing. A real let down.
0Comment| One person found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse

Customers also viewed these items


Need customer service? Click here