For some reason, I have it in my head that Greg Egan writes cold, difficult-to-access science fiction novels, more interested in exploring concepts than telling stories. But it’s been a very long time since I’ve read Egan at novel length, so I can’t back up that impression, and anyway, Zendegi (2010) doesn’t even remotely bear it out. This is terrific near-future SF through and through, a gripping, futurismic story featuring two likeable, well drawn characters, and set against a vivid and compelling backdrop of technological and sociopolitical change.
The novel begins in 2012. Martin Seymour is an Australian journalist at a crossroads in life, a long-term relationship ending just as he becomes a foreign correspondent in Iran, which is entering into a new stage of transformative political turmoil. Meanwhile in the United States, scientist Nasim Golestani — an Iranian expatriot — is working on a ground-breaking new project to map the human brain. The rapidly escalating situation in Iran, and dramatic changes in both protagonists’ lives, ultimately lead them to cross paths in Iran fifteen years later. Nasim has hitched onto a virtual reality project, where her brain-mapping work is about to greatly enhance market share for the VR platform “Zendegi” by populating it with realistic, interactive software avatars. The much publicized improvements to Zendegi’s “non-player characters” lead to controversy, as conservative religious elements argue against the god-like development of digital consciousnesses. But the controversy also gives Martin, whose personal life has taken several dark turns, a desperate idea that may enable him to leave a legacy after his death.
The virtual reality premise is a hoary old chestnut in science fiction these days, but you wouldn’t know it to read Egan’s treatment. His near-future Iran is detailed and immediate, providing a unique and refreshing backdrop to the familiar SF ideas under examination. But beyond looking at early stage VR and AI, Egan also examines cultural, political, and religious upheaval in a corner of the world underexplored in science fiction. And he does so through the eyes of two strongly developed, sympathetic characters confronting both thorny political challenges and heart-wrenching personal ones. It makes for a swift, engrossing read, which for me only stumbled in pace during the virtual reality scenes, which aren’t nearly as captivating as the real world ones. Fortunately, Egan spends only enough time in Zendegi as is necessary for the story. All in all, highly recommended.