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.