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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 16 January 2006
This is pure SF at its purest; original, admittedly difficult and challenging, but pushing the boundaries of the genre and rewarding the reader who perseveres.
In the past authors have felt obliged to patronise their readership by providing a certain amount of explanation of the science involved. To be fair to the average readership this is sometimes necessary and indeed Egan provides a glossary at the end of the book which defines some of the terms and concepts explored.
Even so this novel, described by one critic as ‘more science than fiction’, although a brilliant and rewarding piece, is in places very hard work, particularly when Egan goes off into pages of lengthy and eloquent scientific arpeggio.
The basic premise is that toward the end of the 30th century, Humanity has schismed into several forms: the Polises (a polis being a virtual city of digitised human brain structures), Gleisners (similarly digitised humans, but who choose to inhabit physical bodies) and Fleshers (who are physically human but may or may not have genetically engineered their structure). There are also extreme degrees of difference and divergence within these three main groups.
The aftermath of a cosmic disaster forces the polises and the gleisners to send a thousand copies of their populated cities (with copies of the inhabitants) out into the galaxy. There it is discovered – from a vanished Elder Race known as The Transmuters who have left coded messages locked within the structures of neutrons - that a similar collapse is about to occur at the core of the galaxy. One millions of times more powerful than the original disaster; one which will engulf the entire galaxy.
The race is then on to follow in the steps of the Elder Race into another Universe with different physical laws where they will be safe from the aftermath of the core collapse.
The science from here on gets even more complex and is apparently based on the theories and beliefs of contemporary thinking in Physics. Those who know something of Modern Physics and indeed, those who are well acquainted with SF conventions will get far more from this novel than the lay reader.
It has to be said however, that it is to Egan’s credit that he has not been tempted to ‘dumb down’ his writing at all. The breadth of his ideas is breathtaking, beginning with a detailed, very plausible and quite fascinating description of the ‘psychogenesis’ of a digitised personality. Much of the novel is concerned with the subject of individual identity, consciousness and the very nature of ‘self’.
It’s also a novel which poses many questions about our possible future as a designer species, and in so doing, in a kind of Hard SF Dick legacy, questions what it means to be human.
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on 3 February 2011
Oh lord. I came to Diaspora after having it recommended by several friends. I'm not a MASSIVE fan of sci-fi but had, once, greatly enjoyed the Big (cheesy?) Names, like Ian M Banks, Arthur C Clarke, Asimov, etc, etc. I was looking for a change, and'd been told that Diaspora is utterly incredible and has an unbelievable reveal.

Very well! To the book!!

And.... good grief. What a let-down. It isn't the ideas that I struggled with. The ideas are absolutely fantstic. The first 40-50 pages contain several sparkling ideas, of eminently spectacular creativity and originality. Egan has, clearly, put a tremendous amount of work into developing a complex understanding of a realistic (and very alternative) reality.

But... the writing is awful. Not a little bit bad. Awful. A huge chunk of the second chapter (the first chapter is only 2 pages long, fwiw) is devoted to explaining the development / evolution / creation of what seems to be a free-floating / not-entirely-corporeal / substantially-mathematical entity. Great idea. In outline. But then, good grief, he begins going into it. Page after page after page of how many hundreds of this go into forming how many billions of that, which are portrayed as a map which is blue on green here and grey on a white stripe here and and... Swiftly followed by a chunk of writing on the development of the entity's 'consciousness.'

I quote from the book: "These traps began to form connections with each other, using them at first just to share their judgements, to sway each other's decisions. if the trap for the image of a lion was triggered, then the traps for its linear name, for the kind of sounds other lions had been heard to make, for common features seen in their behaviour (licking cubs, pursuing antelope) all became hypersensitive. Sometimes the incoming data triggered a whole cluster of linked traps all at once, strengthening their mutual connections, but sometimes there was time for overeager associate traps to start firing prematurely. The lion shape has been recognised - and though the word 'lion' has not yet been detected, the 'lion' word-trap is tentatively firing ... and so are the traps for cub-licking and antelope-chasing."

I feel as if this is kinda 'This Is Spot. See Spot Run. Run, Spot, Run' only, well, for an Ikea catalogue of consciousness development. Super-clunky. Really uninvolved. And - most importantly - there's just no emotional hook at this point. There are - literally - no characters yet, some 20 pages of technical clunkiness on. Just a huge exegesis of ploddingly disconnected technical blather.

Then, suddenly, hallelujah! The being is developed. And - woo - it actually begins to meet some other entities. And for all of 10 or 15 pages, there is - briefly - some interaction. A bit of character development. Just a little bit, but I almost began to give a monkey's about the apparent protagonist. Which was nice.

I was kinda hoping the book would continue in a similar vein, but as soon as chapter three began it was apparent that the 'characters' were again acting as inconvenient hooks to hang some extremely clever ideas off. Cue several pages of agonisingly dull exposition about rendering toruses (tori?) and spheres in 2, 3, and 4 dimensions in Euclidean geometry. It's worth pointing out that - again - there is literally no character development here. The 'characters' speak words that are convenient for the exposition of the idea, they say nothing that might endow them with any kind of individuality or noteworthy characteristics. And nothing catchy, well-phrased, or tidily-written, either. Just plodding, semi-articulate nuts-and-bolts explanation.

AND from there it leads into a painfully detailed, utterly depersonalised description of the 'truth mines,' where the archived history of all mathematical truths ab origine is held. For another several pages. With - again - zero character development or, tbh, plotting of any kind.

This is - I guess - perhaps what some of the other reviewers meant when they said that Egan can be 'hard going' in places. I don't mind hard going. I have to read quite a few (quantitative and qualitative) academic articles / books for my day job; hard going I can handle. But this is just... awful. For a 'novel,' at least. Or for anything that's meant to be drawing the reader in, communicating effectively, developing meaningful characters, offering any incentive or an emotional hook to continue reading further...

Suffering a severe attack of the 'why-am-I-botherings,' following the maths mines I skipped ahead to an arbitrary page and read the first line of dialogue. P.280, fwiw. The line of dialogue: "If we could work out macrosphere physics in enough detail, do you think we could cause the singularity to emit a stream of particles that coalesced into a functioning C-Z clone? Or maybe we could start with a cloud of raw materials, then create nanomachines to fabricate the polis?"

Good lord, give me a break! I can see the Ideas writ large in this. I can see the technical genius, the wonderful ideas, the blah blah blah. What I've continuously and consistently failed to find in Diaspora is any plotting or characterisation, any writing skills or emotional engagement, that makes the ideas remotely worth bothering with or going after.

I'd be tempted to venture that a book like this DOESN'T NEED to be that hard going. Anywhere. Regardless of the complexity of the ideas. It just IS hard going, because there's no substantial content OTHER than the ideas. In terms of either structure, or process. Certainly not within the first 50-60 pages, at least.

My copy's off to Oxfam; best of luck to you if you're up for giving this a shot.

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on 11 July 2002
In his previous novels, Greg Egan's hardcore scientific speculation has always seemed to be shoehorned, slightly awkwardly, into his decently imagined, elegantly written plots. A less brave writer might have reined in the science, and created a more conventional novel. Egan, instead, turns it up to 11, and may, in the process, have kickstarted an entirely new kind of writing.
Hundreds of years from now, 'humanity' is mostly a collective of self-generating, autonomous software running on underground computers. When an unexpected cosmic event kills off all remaining organic life on earth, and also shakes the foundations of known physics, it stirs this somewhat decadent posthumanity to launch these 'polises' on a grand quest to the stars, to find out what happened, whether it will happen again, and if there is any way of escaping it.
They find the rather bleak answers to their questions, and much more besides, in a tale so unlike anything else, that it can barely be called a novel. Instead, it's a travelogue through realms of incredible physics, concisely and, if you're prepared to make a bit of effort, very clearly explained.
A lot of the science is doubtless borderline gibberish (although you get a bibliography at the end which includes at least one scientific paper!), but that's not important. This is art, and what Egan has done is used the language of contemporary maths, physics and occasionally biology to conjure up artefacts so poetic, so beautiful in concept, that they demand to be believed.
And, bravely, he's left it at that, challenging the reader either to enjoy the exuberance of his worlds as much as he does, or go and do something else instead. There is, of course, a story to be told, but rather than using science as an adjunct to the story, it's inseparable form the story itself: his bizarre cosmology is as much a character as the actual characters.
Who, it must be said, occasionally lack substance. That they are all capable of adjusting their own personalities only goes so far as an excuse for not consistently giving them one at all, and bringing sixteen dimensional aliens into the mix is risky if some of your protagonists barely have two. He's still tubthumping over-hard for 'rationality', as well- the 'fleshers' who insist on corporeality for spiritual reasons are portrayed with more derision than they deserve, and their destruction is handled a little coldly.
Some flaws, then, but these are generally obscured by the light of wonderful, speculative science that discovers the beauty that can be created from the abstruse and technical concepts of theoretical physics.
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on 8 December 2001
No science fiction fan's life is complete until they have read this truly extraordinary novel. 'Diaspora' is a novel that could change the way you think about science fiction.
Post-human civilisation is a land where most science fiction writers fear to tread. Egan, however, charges in like the tourist guide to the end of the universe, training the spotlight of his fearsome narrative skill on all its most interesting and relevant features.
Egan deals with such abstract, difficult concepts that it seems miraculous that he can explain them at all, let alone with such clarity that a lay reader like myself has no trouble following his thread. That he also manages to tell a genuinely emotive story in this strange and alien world is even more surprising. Readers should be advised however that the first quarter of the book is quite hard going - stick with it, you won't be sorry you did. Towards the end the book becomes so intense that you won't be able to put it down, no matter how many multi-dimensional perceptual spaces or quantum-level machinery descriptions Egan can throw in to see if you're still paying attention. Wonder after astrophysical wonder flies from the page, and I guarantee that if you make it past the halfway point, you'll finish it wanting more.
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on 30 November 1998
Greg Egan continues with the manifesto he set himself with Permutation City. Grander in scope than the earlier book, he again tackles the question: What would it mean to download human consciousness to the digital domain? One of SF's great ideas men, the answers he provides are as subtle and as surprising as ever.
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on 11 January 2010
Firstly; watch out for plot spoiler reviews!!
(it's not a mystery tour if you know where your heading)

Egan's work is 'Hard' Sci-Fi of the highest order. I give him the edge over Brian Aldis (my other favorite), as concepts are heavier and plots driven by 'rawer' science at a blistering pace.

His breadth of vision astounds; always extrapolating logically to the n'th degree. A modicum of effort may be required from the reader at times; but one is richly rewarded with a sense of awe, discovery and achievement. Each book is a Grand Odyssey.

Hold tight and don't look down, because he'll take you a long, long way from where you started....
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on 11 October 2011
Diaspora reads more like a series of interconnected short stories than a solid novel like Egan's Permutation City or Quarantine. Much like Charles Stross's Accelerando (which was admittedly published in 2005 compared to Egan's earlier 1998), there is an acceleration in technology towards the mythical technological singularity, each short story driving the science further and further.

As mentioned above, my experience with Egan's novels are drawn at Permutation City and Quarantine. Each of these novels was rich in science and had my head spinning like a cyclotron of wonder. The science was deep but it wasn't over my head like I needed to skip entire paragraphs to get past the meat. However, in Diaspora it's exactly the opposite. There's like room was awe to blossom as the meat of the science was so dense I found myself just skimming paragraphs and sometimes entire pages.

Don't get me wrong, the direction Egan takes is impressive, it's big; the ideas go unchallenged as far as I'm concerned in the realm of science fiction. The characters refiguring the long established physics upon witnessing an impossible event is so deeply ingrained in the cast's psyche that it's even possible the Egan, himself, dares to challenge modern theories on theoretical physics. It's big... but it's not an easy read nor is it, at times, a particularly enjoyable journey.

I don't read Egan for his straightforward writing style, but he surprised me a few times with some clever, insightful prose to contrast his rambling science bits. Best example was on page 208 in the first paragraph of a new story: `...the occasion seemed to demand the complete ritual of verisimilitude, the ornate curlicued longhand of imitation physical cause and effect.' Actually, that entire chapter is composed of a mere two paragraphs but easily stands out from the rest of the book as if touched by Midas himself. I've never seen any author describe the sky as isotropic.

As much as I would like to give a synopsis of each short story, the amount of work it would entail would be equally as arduous as some of the passages about six-dimensional physics and spatial awareness. Each of the nine stories was a solid 4-of-5 star rating while the final story sort of lost steam and fell behind with 3 stars.
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on 30 April 2010
I enjoyed this tale of Virtual life and space / universe travel. A couple of things irritated me, the use of 'vis, ver, vim' as personal pronouns and the unnecessarily detailed (in my view) scientific expositions in what is after all a work of fiction. I was also nagged throughout by recollecting Roger Penrose's view that people could not live in 'the machine' which led me to wonder if that explained the apparent lack of scientific creativity shown by the descendants of earth compared to the alien Transmuters. There were some lovely moments such as 'standing' on s starship's hull and the final decoding of the Transmuters' message
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on 14 May 2000
"Diaspora" is a poetic exploration of the unlimited potential of the human mind. Following on in concept from "Permutation City", Egan explores the nature of consciousness in a future where those who still live in physical bodies - "fleshers" - are conservative anachronisms and where most of the descendants of humanity live as software. Beginning with a beautiful description of the rise into self-awareness of a newly born mind, he considers cloning, travel between stars and dimensions, and the possibilities of complete autonomy afforded by leaving the physical world. "Diaspora" is ideas-driven science fiction at its best.
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on 24 May 1999
The book begins with a superb description of the 'birth' of a software personality in a 'polis' - a society of disembodied personalities in a large computer living accelerated lives with certain rights - such as equal access to resources and processor time. It moves on to describe the lives of gleisner robots (software persons embedded in robots living in real time) and fleshers (genetically altered descendants of humanity). The plot continues with the attempt to escape from our universe. Some readers will find descriptions of physical and mathematical theories daunting but the plot incorporates some wonderful ideas about software, robotics and dimensional travel. One of the most original and inventive hard science fiction novels I have read in a long long time. Read it!
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