BOOK REVIEW Zendegi – Greg Egan

Tepid meditation on fatherhood and Middle Eastern democracy

Author: Greg Egan
Publisher: Gollancz * 336 pages * £18.99
ISBN: 978-0-57508-617-3 * 17 June 2010

Greg Egan’s 1995 novel Distress began with a riveting scene in which a murder victim was temporarily (and gruesomely) revived so that he could lead police to his own killers. His new novel Zendegi begins with a guy pondering the best way to transfer his vinyl collection to MP3, asking his downstairs neighbour for advice, methodically following that advice, and then having a long conversation about it with someone he meets on a plane.

If that sounds like a parody of a boring way to start a book, then it reads a bit like one too. Still, this is a Greg Egan novel about artificial consciousness, so presumably all this analogue-to-digital stuff is a way of introducing ideas that will be useful later on, when everyone’s busy uploading their brains? Actually, no. Nothing relevant ever arises. So it’s not conceptual foreshadowing. And it’s certainly not plot. Could it be characterisation? Well, if the intention is that we’re bored of the main character before the real story even starts, then yeah, maybe. There wouldn’t be any need to dwell on this dreary opening if it didn’t feel so representive of the whole effort.

An Australian journalist called Martin reports on a revolution in Iran, and decides to settle there; a decade later, he has a son, meets a neuroscientist called Nasim, and gets involved in an artificial intelligence project.

The mood throughout is strangely diffident: themes tail off, confrontations are dodged, ambitions are deflated, breakthroughs happen to other people. After last year’s disappointing short story collection Oceanic, here are more signs that Egan’s once-mighty imaginative muscles have atrophied during his long break from writing. Let’s hope it won’t take him too much longer to get back into shape.

Ned Beauman