Zendegi: a Greg Egan novel
My e-copy of this book categorises it as “Fantasy; short stories.” It is neither. Rather, it is a near-future novel about politics, virtual reality, religion, family relationships, and death.
No, it is not a Patrick Rothfuss or George RR Martin-style tome. It is elegant.
Two strands: Nasim is an Iranian woman living in America, working on the mapping of individual finch brains to try and create a generic brain map. Martin is an Australian journalist working in Iran, who gets to cover escalating political unrest. (This book was published in 2010….) Flick forward several years, and Nasim is living in Iran and now working on Zendegi, a virtual-reality platform used by millions of people, mostly for entertainment. Martin is still in Iran, married with a son. I trusted that the two strands would eventually cross, but I really couldn’t figure out how. The answer is both ‘cleverly’ and ‘via tragedy’ (Egan, you are nasty).
I am in serious danger of becoming quite the Egan fangirl. Just so you all know.
Egan does a marvellous job here of entwining the intimate and domestic with large-scale societal issues. Personal tragedies are neither hyped up to become world-ending nor elided as insignificant. The plot moves carefully between, for example, Zendegi as entertainment for a six year old and Zendegi as bleeding-edge technology – and how the company can deal with competitors. Egan portrays politics as they are seen by a slightly-above-average interested citizen, rather than focussing on politicians; he touches on religion as it might be experienced, rather than trying to show rights and wrongs. He’s a sensitive and compassionate author, but did I mention nasty? Also, I think he writes women well, which is something I’m coming to appreciate more and more. Nasim’s feelings of anxiety over having left Iran, and wanting to return, read realistically. In fact, overall human attitudes and relationships read as believable: complex and contradictory and frustrating and glorious.
In a more classically cyberpunk novel, Zendegi would get far more of the focus that it does here; characters don’t actually spend that much time in the virtual world, for example. It is incredibly significant for both Martin and Nasim by the end, but still I am a little surprised by its use as the title. I think Egan has hit on a more likely way for virtual entertainment to encroach on our lives than most early cyberpunkers did – more subtle, and perhaps more insidious for the fact. It’s really nicely presented.
This is a novel brimful of complex and challenging ideas that is an absolute, pretty much effortless, delight to read.
You can buy Zendegi from Fishpond.