Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

"Permutation City" by Greg Egan (Millennium, 1994)

An SF novel set initially around 2050 prefaced by a 20-line poem that begins

Into a mute crypt, I
Can't pity our time
Turn amity poetic

Each line's an anagram of "permutation city". The Prologue's title is "(Rip, tie, cut toy man)", which also appears in chapter headings 3, 6, 9, and 12. Chapter 1 is headed "(Remit not paucity)", which also appears in chapter headings 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, and the Epilogue. Chapter 16 is headed "Toy man picture it". Chapter 20 is headed "Can't you time trip". Chapters 24 and 27 are headed "Rut city" (a subset of the 15 letters). The other chapters have blank headings.

People are scanned and converted into programs called "Copies". Do they feel continuity with their biological originals? Do they feel their original's guilt? What is identity? What sort of madness is it when people think they're Copies? The status of Copies is a hot topic in the media

  • "There's discreet sponsorship of a sitcom about working-class Copies, which makes the whole idea less threatening" (p.33)
  • "Supporters of the Strong AI Hypothesis insisted that consciousness was a property of certain algorithms ... regardless of what mechanism, or organ, was used to perform the task. ... Opponents replied that when you modelled a hurricane, nobody got wet." (p.40)

The novel's a concept-guzzler with enough ideas for a few short stories. Info-dumping's inevitable, though I think the dialogue where characters explain their motivations needs more variety. Much of the action takes place in a VR world where for fancy dress people appear as Babbage engines or "Searle's Chinese Rooms". The world's based on the dust theory. Politics is different there - "Any one of the founders who disagreed with the way Planet Lambert was managed would be perfectly free to copy the whole Autoverse into their own territory, and to do as they wished with their own private version" (p.239) The VR world hosts another experimental world where Lambertians evolve. The Copies build a spaceship to enter this inner VR world when they think the Lambertians are ready to meet "aliens", but the worlds collide.

I think the Wow-factor of the dust theory could have been exploited more, and some of the info-dumping could have been shortened. Moral responsibility in this context has been dealt with by Chris Beckett (amongst others) who, freed from the need to explain the technology, wrote a more engaging story.

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