Books

'Zendegi': Life In the Street Demos and Sitting Rooms of Near-Future Tehran

Quick, name the last SF novel you read set in Iran. Can't? Here you go, then.


Zendegi

Publisher: Night Shade
Length: 279 pages
Author: Greg Egan
Price: $14.99
Format: Trade paperback
Publication date: 2011-05
Amazon

Ask a random person what s/he associates with the term "science fiction", and you're likely to hear him/her conjure up images of spacecraft, alien monsters, computer intelligence, laser guns, Star Trek, Avatar and The Day the Earth Stood Still. You might get a reference to William Gibson't cyberpunk, Ray Bradbury's lyrical dystopias or the first-contact scenarios of Larry Niven or Jerry Pournelle. You will probably not get a lot of references to current events in post-Revolution Iran.

Kudos to Greg Egan, then, for boldly going where few SF writers have gone before—namely, into the street demos and sitting rooms of near-future Tehran. His new novel Zendegi offers a glimpse of a city, and by implication a whole country, struggling to shake off its theocratic shackles and come to terms with the realities of the 21st century.

Zendegi's first hundred pages scarcely feel like science fiction at all. Although set in the year 2012, the setting is a theocratic Iran that is hardly different from today's country in any recognizable way. Australian journalist Martin Seymour travels to the country to cover the increasing political and social unrest, and gets involved in a number of dangerous scrapes. At least one of these situations involves his friend Omar, a local who winds up on the wrong side of the authorities. Given the nature of those authorities, this is easy enough to do.

As the novel opens, Martin is converting his entire music collection from analog vinyl LPs to digital files. When an unforeseen glitch results in those files being permanently marred, the reader is inclined to shrug off the incident as minor. But Egan cleverly positions this anecdote as a representation of the novel's thematic concerns in miniature, for it's the idea of digital reproduction and storage, and the limits of the same, that forms the moral core of this story.

A hundred pages in, the story jumps ahead 15 years. Iran is a different place, theocratic no more, and Martin has settled into a new life in Tehran, complete with job, wife and young son. His friend Omar is there too, as is the newest high-tech 3D total-immersion gaming experience: Zendegi. Zendegi is only one of several game platforms—strong rivals are coming out of China and Bangalore—but Zendegi is the local favorite, and Martin's son Javeed wants to play.

It 's here that the book's Iranian backdrop begins to make perfect thematic sense. Apart from the fact that science fiction scenarios are as likely to play out in the Middle East as anywhere else—after all, that part of the world will experience the future too—the themes of both Zendegi the book and Zendegi the game take on a particular resonance in light of a society which remains, if not theocratic, nonetheless profoundly religious in outlook.

As the game grows more sophisticated, the non-playing, computer-generated background characters grow more complex in their interactions with players, a process abetted by sophisticated brain-mapping techniques. These techniques are detailed in the part of the book focusing on Nasim, an Iranian-expat researcher in America who returns to Tehran following the 2012 revolution.

The question of artificial intelligence, of knowing at what point programming ends and consciousness begins, is an old one in science fiction. (And in science fact, for that matter.) Egan's book frames the question in a fresh and invigorating way.

It also makes Zendegi seem like one hell of a game, the kind of thing you'd love to spend all your free time playing. Players stand in round, enclosed containers that allow freedom of movement, wearing goggles and gloves that transmit information about their virtual environments visually and tactilely. Walking or running on a treadmill, they find themselves moving through the virtual environments with no disconnect between what their bodies are doing and what their eyes are reporting. Cameras and electrodes follow every real-life movement within the spheres, so players in the game experience a natural ease of movement unencumbered by intermediary tech such as keyboards or joysticks.

The environments, and the stories within them, are limited only by the game designers' imaginations, so playing is an addictive escape from mundanity. Even in the book, the scenes within Zendegi are some of the liveliest and most exciting.

As Egan shows, though, this diversion comes at a cost. For many players, the question of game-character consciousness is one that will be of little or no concern; but there are enough religious conservatives in both Iran and the USA to worry the designers of the game. When Martin Seymour (he "sees more," get it?) receives some unwelcome news halfway through the book—news that causes him to reconsider his future in Tehran—those concerns burst to the foreground.

Zendegi is a well written, smartly paced and ultimately thoght-provoking SF novel that pushes the boundaries of what is commonly called "science fiction". It will make you think, but even more importantly, it will make you feel, too.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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