Permutation City by Greg Egan


Genre(s): Science Fiction
Series: Stand-Alone
Millenium Orion Publishing Group
Release date:
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Cyberpunk (HM), Australian Author, AI Character (HM)

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Execution: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Enjoyment: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5


Immortality would have been meaningless, trapped in a “machine” with a finite number of possible states; in a finite timeline he would have exhausted the list of every possible thing he could be. Only the promise of eternal growth made sense of eternal life.

Greg Egan is a writer for fans of “big idea” hard science fiction, and Permutation City absolutely lives up to this. Egan’s novel is almost distressingly prescient, dealing with modern concepts like sorting through spam email, distributed computing, and a world that lives and works predominantly online. This does not feel like a novel which was written in 1994 – it feels like a novel someone wrote today about a slightly alternate vision of our present day future. Egan explores the idea of artificial intelligence in a way I simply haven’t seen done before – where an AI is not a discrete individual that can only exist as an individual, but as a program which can copy and edit itself to be whatever it wishes… not to mention what that means where humanity is concerned. 

In Egan’s version of the future, society has developed technology which allows one to create a precise one-for-one digital Copy of themselves. This Copy is identical in every way to the original person, and is often used by the rich and wealthy as a way to obtain partial immortality following death. Those of the upper middle class may be able to afford a scan on their deathbed… but may not be able to afford to actually be simulated due to the price of computing power and server time, or may have to “live” with extremely slow processing speeds.

Even the wealthiest of Copies, who often remain partially in control of the assets they had in life as high-ranking CEOs or other business executives, have a cap on just how quickly they can be simulated. In the fastest simulations, the minimum degree of slowdown experienced is 17x – that is, for every “subjective” minute inside the simulation, 17 “objective” minutes have passed on the outside.  Copies with smaller trust funds may experience much greater slowdowns, often in the range of 60-100x… or even more. The slow Copies congregate together online, synching to the slowest among them, in Slow Clubs. They are rarely, if ever, visited by loved ones – when a family member or friend would have to spend a week in bed to be simulated for only 2 hours with you, it’s a lot easier to just send a prerecorded video or email every now and then.

He glanced at the control panel and felt a stab of vertigo; more than a hundred trillion subjective years of Standard Time had elapsed. But if [they] had cut all ties with them, Standard Time was meaningless. Peer reached out to halt their acceleration, but Kate grabbed him by the wrist.

She said quietly, “Why bother? Let it climb forever. It’s only a number, now.”

While Copies are usually created upon one’s death, it is however possible to create and simulate a Copy of yourself earlier than that… but it’s usually not recommended. When a Copy with a living counterpart who is identical in every way is created, the fact that they are stuck inside of a tiny shoebox simulation rather than being alive and outside like they remember and understand is typically too much to handle, and the Copy immediately “bails out” of the simulation. That is.. they shut themselves down. They cease to exist. The opening scene of the novel deals with this concept: Paul Durham has created a Copy, and when Copy!Paul “wakes up” and realizes what a horrific mistake he’s made and attempts to bail out… he finds that Real!Paul has removed his ability to do so. While on one hand, I felt horrible for Copy!Paul…. it puts the reader into a slight conundrum. How bad can you really feel for him when you know that if he’d been the one who remained outside, he would have done the very same thing to his very same self?

“By the way, I just deleted one of you. I couldn’t afford to keep you both running, when all you’re going to do is laze around.”

For Copies who have existed digitally for longer periods of time, questions about personhood and identity gradually become more and more relevant. In a simulation, all it takes to change who you are is the simple desire to do so. Would you like to feel happier? You can fine-tune your precise degree of happiness with naught but a thought. Need a touch more confidence? Maybe in the mood for some melancholy? No problem. It’s your choice, entirely. You can control your interests, control your environment, control every single little piece of yourself. You can edit your memories to either erase old ones or to create new ones wholesale. When you can do all that… what actually defines you? Is there a core set of experiences or memories? No longer do you have to react or respond in certain ways, and you can change your basic instincts at the drop of a hat. You can effectively kill yourself without ever ceasing to exist for even a moment.

Where was the line? Between self-transformation so great as to turn a longing for death into childlike wonder… and death itself, and the handing on of the joys and burdens he could no longer shoulder to someone new?

She searched his face for an answer, but she couldn’t read him.

In this sort of existence, people often create whatever they think they deserved in life, resulting in sorts of self-made heavens, hells, and limbos. One climbs a skyscraper blissfully unaware of himself unto eternity. One watches himself commit his greatest sin, over and over. One creates a brand new world populated with her own creations.

He tipped his head back to take in, one more time, the silver wall of the skyscraper stretching to infinity above him. Cotton-wool clouds drifted by, higher than any part of the building – even though the building went on forever.

Egan’s vision is shockingly well-realized, with only a few small flaws that brought this down from a five star rating for me. While the narrative follows many characters, I didn’t feel that all of the storylines quite came together the way I anticipated. Each character trailed off rather than forming a cohesive, intertwined ending. While all of the endings were satisfying in their own ways, it just didn’t quite provide the coup de grace to the novel that I was expecting. Additionally, I’m the kind of person who is really big on flowery prose. Egan’s prose is serviceable and tells the story well, but it existed only to tell the story and didn’t add anything to it beyond that.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The philosophical questions it raises are tantalizing, engaging, and more than a little frightening. Though it’s from the 90s, it’s a hard science fiction version of the future that could have been written today. I would strongly recommend this to any fans of big idea-based science fiction.


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Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?

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