Monday, 21 March 2011

Greg Egan: Zendegi (2010)

Science fiction is associated with prediction of the future in the minds of many. Few writers in the genre would feel that this is the main point of what they produce, but sometimes their work can be eerily prophetic. Zendegi is a near future SF novel (written in 2010, with the first part set in 2012), so it is perhaps less surprising that it is reasonably accurate; but actually its portrayal of a popular uprising in Iran has a huge number of similarities to the current spate of pro-democracy demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East. (The afterword indicates that the events were inspired by the Iranian elections of 2009, which may well have also been part of the inspiration for the demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere.)

There are two main viewpoint characters, the Western journalist Martin, sent to Iran to cover the 2012 elections, and computer scientist Nasim, who left Iran for the United States with her mother some years earlier, and who is working on a cognitive science project, aiming towards replicating human brain function in computers. Martin ends up staying in Iran afterwards, and this leads to a connection to the two characters when he marries Nasim's cousin. Her work becomes more important in the second part, which is really about the gradual development of artificial intelligence. This is set fifteen years later, and things have changed remarkably little in terms of technology - somewhat surprising, to my mind. Think how much things have changed since 1995, when the Internet was still something that people in general were just beginning to hear about (I worked for an ISP then, and marketing involved explaining what the Internet was to prospective customers).

The thriller like nature of the first part works better than the more speculative virtual reality oriented science fiction in the second. But by then the reader is interested in the characters, so becomes involved in Nasim's work and Martin's life in Iran. It is very odd: for a science fiction writer particularly famous for the hard science in his novels, Greg Egan has produced a story in which the best parts are near contemporary and character based.

This is not at all the sort of story I would associate with Greg Egan, who sticks in my mind mainly for novels like Schild's Ladder, which have far future settings and which deal with ideas based on the more bizarre current cosmological speculation. Mind you, the other Greg Egan novel I have reviewed here, Teranesia, is also set on Earth in the relatively near future, so it's not really a departure: he just doesn't fit into the pigeonhole into which I have mentally put him. Zendegi is more the sort of novel I would associate with Robert J. Sawyer - and would, in fact, make an excellent follow up for anyone who has enjoyed his WWW trilogy.

An interesting thriller, with science fiction elements not quite so good: my rating 7/10.

Edition: Gollancz, 2010
Review number: 1416

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