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Zendegi by Greg Egan

1/09/2010. Contributed by Gareth D Jones

Buy Zendegi in the USA - or Buy Zendegi in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 329 page enlarged paperback. Price: 14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-08818-0.

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I've been following Greg Egan's work since his short stories first appeared in 'Interzone' twenty years ago and I've been reading his novels as they appear ever since. His first novel 'Quarantine' was the first book I picked up because of recognising the author's name from his short stories. That has happened very few times since. This latest novel 'Zendegi' continues two of Greg Egan's perennial themes: advanced technology and software - his trademark 'hard SF' arena - and the use of varied cultures in which to tell the tale. In his far-future novels, the society he depicts is often a supra-national amalgamation of human cultures, while his near-future fiction often features characters from second or third world countries unfamiliar and exotic, I suspect, to the majority of readers. These settings, Iran in the case of 'Zendegi', add an extra dimension of interest to the narrative.

The two major characters of the book are Australian journalist Martin Seymour, whose work takes him to Iran, and Iranian refugee Nasim Golestani, who starts the novel in America. Initially, only two years in the future, much of the opening hundred pages is concerned with social and political issues, intrigue and journalism. The research at MIT into brain-mapping appears cutting-edge but not far-fetched. Similarly, the world of virtual reality is developed gradually and woven into the story in such a way that it maintains its credibility. Nasim uses her research at MIT to improve the realism of software characters, while Martin, along with other ancillary characters, wants to use the potential of the software to extend his life. The plot develops around all of these interlaced threads and gradually bring the characters together.

The prose in 'Zendegi' is very smooth and I was carried throughout the story along the narrative threads with skill and care. There were no moments of lost concentration or plot breakdown to spoil the illusion. The characters, too, were engaging and engrossing. From the beginning, they come across as well-thought-out and realistic. As the novel progresses and various tribulations overtake them, I found my eyes glistening more than once.

The rendition of the virtual world of Zendegi is portrayed with great realism and attention to detail. It is a work in progress, rather than a fait accompli. Through the eyes of Fariba the software designer, we see the technical hitches, the obstacles to be overcome, the possible techniques that could be developed to improve a virtual world and the social consequences of improved realism and quasi-intelligent software. Through the eyes of Martin, we encounter the religio-political reactions that may well come to be. In terms of near-future SF, notoriously hard to get right, Greg Egan has trodden carefully and with consideration. There are no wild flights of fancy, but a solidly developed string of possibilities. His best guess is as good as any I've read and probably better than most.

So Greg Egan successfully maintains his position as one of my favourite authors, which I suspect is near the top of his priority list with this absorbing read. This is by far the most accessible of novels he has written and would be appreciated by many non-SF readers, too, should they deign to even glance at the cover. It's a piece that transcends boundaries and is simply a great work of fiction.

Gareth D. Jones

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