Sep 16 2008 6:33pm
To trace impunity: Greg Egan’s Permutation City

There are readings of a book you can’t have on first reading. One of them is the reading in the light of later work. Another is being impressed how much it hasn’t dated.

I loved Permutation City when I first read it in 1994. It blew me away. It does everything science fiction ought to do—it has a story and characters and it’s so full of ideas you almost can’t stand up straight.

I still love it. I noticed all sorts of things about it on that first reading, but I didn’t then see it as part of Egan’s passionately engaged one-sided argument against God. In 1994 Egan hadn’t yet written Teranesia, or “Oceanic” or “Oracle”. The cumulative effect of these, with Permutation City’s concluding denial of the possibility of deity, is not so much an assertion of “I don’t believe in this, and you can’t either” as of the intellectual equivalent of watching the world champion heavyweight blindfold shadow-boxer.

Permutation City takes a brilliant (but apparently impossible) SF-nal idea and works through it pretty much perfectly. This is the Dust Hypothesis, the idea that consciousness finds itself out of the dust of the universe and constructs its own universe where its existence makes sense. We first see this with an AI whose brain states are being calculated out of order, and eventually with entire infinite universes, human and alien.

The book begins in a 2050 that still plausibly feels like a possible 2050 we could reach from here—which is a major feat for a book written in 1994 and focused on computers. It palms the card of strong AI by putting us right into the point of view of a Copy, a simulated human. Because we’re reading, and we’re used to reading and empathising with a point of view, we don’t ever stop to consider whether or not Copies are conscious. We just accept it and right go on into the Dust Hypothesis. Along the way we see the 2050 world, the far future virtual world of Elysium, and the meticulously modeled autoverse.

The book has three central characters: Paul Durham, an obsessive who launches the virtual city out of the dust of the universe; Maria Deluca, programmer and autoverse junkie; and Peer, a Copy who persistently rewrites who he is. All of these, and the fourth point of view character, Thomas the guilty banker who sends his cloned self to hell, are among the best characters Egan has ever created. I don’t think I’ve ever put down an Egan book without saying “Wow, look at those sparkly ideas,” but this is the one I re-read to hang out with the characters.

Reflecting the Dust Hupothesis, the chapter titles, which recur and mark threads within the novel, are all whole or partial anagrams of the words “Permutation City”. So is the title of this piece, which comes from the poem that begins the book in which each line is such an anagram.

The last time I read this book, a couple of years ago, on what was probably my tenth or eleventh read, I got so caught up in the end that I missed my stop on the metro. About a year ago, my son Sasha read it and was enthralled. His top quality category of SF is what he calls “Books like Spin and Permutation City!” By that he means very well written SF with characters you can care about and plots that keep you on the edge of your seat, with ideas that expand the possibility of what you can think about. He wishes there were more books like that, and so do I.

rick gregory
1. rickg
Hmm. Read Diaspora, part of Teranesia and while I was dazzled by the science the characters never seemed more than props for the story and the story seemed like SF constructed to make a point rather than explore a story. Maybe I should try this one, but I'm fairly allergic to fiction where I feel everything is being manipulated to simply make a point.
2. Nooks
Surely you've read Quarantine? I picked it out of the 50c bin at a chain bookstore in 1993 or so and never looked back. It doesn't really fit into the arguments-against-god line of Egan books, but it can't really be beat for the number of mind-blowing ideas per page.

Distress has the most compelling characters of Egan's work, to my mind. Re-reading that book always reaffirms my strictly materialist point of view, and it has some interesting things to say about disability to boot.
3. Nooks
(By the way, has anyone else ever noticed that almost none of Egan's character's romantic relationships end happily?)
Mike Kozlowski
4. mkozlows
rickg: Diaspora and Teranesia are the worst of Egan's fiction. Distress, Quarantine, and even Permutation City (which I like less than Jo -- but then, I read it in 2008, not 1994, and it would have been considerably more remarkable then, before I'd even loaded up a web browser) are better. But to my mind his best work, the one that's distilled essence of Egan, is his short story collection Axiomatic.
5. Christopher Palmer
I first read Permutation City right after I read The Mind's I, the anthology of essays about human consciousness and AI edited by Douglas Hoftstader and Daniel Dennett. I thought it was very interesting that most of the first half of PC illustrated several of the thought experiments discussed in Mind's I.

It was one of those moments of weird serendipity where you realize that you've just read two books back-to-back where the author of one of the books must have been reading the same books and thinking about the same things as you. If that makes sense.
6. ruthling
I still adore that book. I've enjoyed much of his other work (Teranesia started very strong and ended nonsensically and boringly at the same time), but this book is one I keep returning to.
Peter Hollo
7. raven
I agree with Nooks about Distress - to me it's his most compelling and full novel, with great characters, setting and ideas. Egan has a habit of being so far ahead of the curve that he doesn't date that much, but YMMV...

But yeah, his best stuff is his short fiction, so I'd go for Axiomatic, Luminous or even the new collection Oceanic and Other Stories, even though that ones fairly light on stories. (But it's got Oceanic, one of my favourite stories ever...)
Even better, just go to his website, where he has a "Works Online". You can read most of his recent short fiction right there, Oceanic included.
8. flipsockgrrl
If writers can be labelled Dionysian or Apollonian, I reckon Egan is one of the latter. His novels are like intellectual gymnastics routines, starting with a 'high concept' premise -- and using events in the plot to elaborate the concept's logic and implications. Eventually, when all the angles have been explored, there's some kind of resolution or answer to the initial premise. And then the story ends.

I've read all of Egan's novels, and most of his short fiction. Only a very few characters stick in memory, three of them from Distress. It's the ideas that linger on -- the Theory of Everything, quantum smearing, the dust hypothesis, the opening scene in Distress, the separation of identity and body in a digital universe, the implications of living in a world where individual creativity is an arbiter of social value...

Thanks for reviewing Permutation City, Jo -- you've prompted me to revisit the "E" section of the bookshelves :-)
Tikitu de Jager
9. tikitu
I must admit I read Egan mainly for his ideas. I love his quantum-mechanics-and-computation-and-possibilities, oh my! take on "nuts and bolts" hard sf. On his website you can play quantum soccer, for example, which is just awesome (it's from his story "Border Guards").

That said, I agree Permutation City has some good characterisation. And possibly the most pathetic sex scene (in the sense of pathos, not quality) ever to appear in sf.
10. Jon Dowland
My favourite is also the first I read, Quarantine. Distress is a close runner-up. I'm definitely drawn more to the corporeal novels, although I did enjoy Diaspora a lot.

I feel intellectually humbled by many of his works. At the time that I read about it, I couldn't fathom the goings-on behind quantum soccer, and I couldn't picture the transformations in Schild's ladder at all either.

Incandescence is in my to-read pile, and I'm eagerly awaiting dark integers.
11. Jim Henry III
Permutation City is one of my favorites by Egan, about on a level with Distress. I also enjoyed Quarantine and Diaspora enough to read them multiple times. I've only read Schild's Ladder once yet, but might eventually read it again. I heard enough bad reviews of Teranesia that I skipped it; I have Incancdescence on my (roughly FIFO) reading queue and will get to it due course.

My reaction to his short fiction is more mixed; it seems he more often takes it as an opportunity to preach atheist materialism, than in his novels, or perhaps such preaching is more annoying as a large element of a short story than when it's a minor thread in a complex novel. I've enjoyed a lot of his short fiction, but there were other pieces I could barely finish, the preaching was so heavy-handed -- "The Moral Virologist", "Oracle", and a few others.
12. DaBab
Today, I finished Permutation City. In the subway (in Paris). And, yeah, I missed my stop.

But, you know, how many people missed their station reading a permutation of Egan's novel somewhere in the infinite universes ?

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