Review: Permutation City

Posted: February 7, 2020 by in Books that are Mediocre (3.4/5 single_star) Meta: Greg Egan, Hard SF, Science Fiction

I’m reaching way back into the vault for this one: 1994. Yeah. I was still in high school and nowhere near mature enough of a reader to pick up half of what science fiction was offering at the time. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mature enough reader these days to understand some of the stuff that science fiction is bringing to the table. A lot of it just makes me go cross-eyed with annoyance and leaves me wondering why story and character are so often pushed to the back burner in favor of presenting ideas that the author thinks are important. Why do they need to present these ideas in the form of fiction? Why not just fill out encyclopedias with these awesome ideas and essays, if the presented construct doesn’t really matter? Still, there are some really cool ideas that get flung around here and there, and I guess authors aren’t exactly going to stop presenting their ideas in these ways. So, we might as well read them, if we can handle them, and try to get what we can out of them. Yes? Yes.

PERMUTATION CITY (Amazon) by Greg Egan is a book full of ideas and the presentation of those ideas, but only tells a very small story. The important part in this regard is that there is actually some kind of story here, which you don’t always find in books like these.

Maria Deluca is somewhat of an “Autoverse” addict. The Autoverse is a very early representation of an online virtual space where people can visit and exist. It is supported by a complete set of simplified laws that allows this virtual world to exist within the bounds of the computational resources that are available. Life, as they say, is complicated, and it only gets more complicated when you deal not only with the emotions and interactions of people, but also with the simulation of everything that makes up said people. Not to mention the world surrounding them. Maria likes to spend the overwhelmingly large majority of her waking hours simulating the simplified lifecycle of a single organism as it manipulates simple molecular sugars.

Paul Durham is a man with a mission. He’s made virtual copies of himself multiple times and then placed them within the Autoverse, but, annoyingly, once those copies become self-aware, they can’t handle the fact that they’re a copy and they terminate themselves. He’s developed a theory along the way that even short simulations should persist after the hardware simulating construct stops simulating it. It’s a bit out there, but roll with it. To test this theory, he’s sold the idea to a relatively small number of very wealthy people and promised them the chance to make a virtual copy of themselves, enter it into this virtual world of his, and experience immortality. His plan is to create a simulation large enough for everyone to fit into it, run it for several minutes, and then shut it down. If it works, all of their digital copies will be immortal. He hires Maria to assemble a beginning state called a “Garden of Eden” construct that has the potential to simulate the evolution of an entire planet’s worth of flora and fauna from a single source: the organism she’s been working with for the last several years.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a science fiction book that spends so much of its time on the science and the presentation of ideas than this one did. It was… HEAVY. And yet, the very thin line of Maria’s story kept me coming back for more. She’s curious and hesitant about Paul and the things he wants, and yet she really needs the money that Paul is offering. From her perspective, the work will very likely be pointless, but he’s paying her regardless of the outcome. So, she dives in. There were also a few other POV characters presented, but I really never got a good handle on why exactly they were in the story, other than to allow the author to present more ideas concerning this condition of immortality and what people might do with it, given the chance. And yeah, okay, it’s something to think about. Not sure I needed to have it relayed to me in story form though, yeah?

The pages spend a lot of time dealing with the definition of self when real, physical people are interacting with digital copies of themselves. There’s a lot of chemistry talk (most of which I understood, given my background). There’s a whole span of conversations about what people would do with immortality, and what kinds of things would be enjoyable/worthwhile in that kind of state. He deals with economic and social aspects of this virtual life, for those that have copied themselves in anticipation of the world coming to a time when the computing power became available to actually live in a fully digital world. There are some relative few, with oodles of resources, that already subsist in this manner, but the relative “speed of life” in the virtual world is 17 times removed from that of the “real world”, and there’s a whole group of situations and ideas that grow up around how those in the two worlds interact with one another and the repercussions of doing so.

To say that this is a book to make you think about a lot of things would be an understatement. It definitely gets the gray matter moving. Yet it was only after reading the whole thing and going back to look at what the author had done that I was even able to reach that point.

Because it's super heavy on the science and the exploration of ideas, PERMUTATION CITY ends up telling very little story and thus wasn't my cup of tea.

The actual experience of reading was mostly a slow-going and confusing ride of “where is this going” and “how does this fit into the rest of the narrative”? As a story, I don’t think it accomplishes much. It was relatively engaging, but I wouldn’t exactly say it was entertaining. Took me about a third of the book to even start to automatically connect a POV change with the last time that POV was presented. In essence, to remember who the characters are. And it wasn’t until about halfway through that I could even say that I understood where it all was headed.

All in all, a fairly impressive bit of science in this piece of fiction, but not enough of the important fiction for all of the science presented. A worthwhile read, as it informed me quite well what this kind of story attempts to portray, but not likely something that I’ll ever want to read again.

  • Recommended Age: 18+ for comprehension, violence, and a scene of sexuality
  • Language: Not a lot, but it can get strong
  • Violence: Some sticky violence that is often repeated
  • Sex: One, pretty explicit scene, and some general conversation


  • Pascal says:

    Could you please fix this review to actually correspond to the book it’s about? You’ve misrepresented the technology presented in the book, e.g “copies” living in the Autoverse; your description of plot elements relating to VR and Autoverse is wrong. It’s actually important to get this stuff right to do the book justice; the science fiction ideas and the plot *need* copies and Autoverse to be INCOMPATIBLE and work on different rules.

    Oh, and as for your comment about papers and encyclopedia entries instead of stories: There ARE dozens of non-fiction papers and books written about the topics touched on here. Cellular automatons are well researched; you’ll find a summary in Wolfram’s 1200 page monster “A new kind of science” (forget the grandiose title, though). The “dust hypothesis” offered in the book which you describe as “a bit out there” will sound familiar to anybody who’s read non-fiction work on how the mind works and how consciousness might arise from dead matter. There is no definitive answer yet on how consciousness arises, and what it means exactly. Current philosophical thought and science in this field has progressed in a direction that makes the book’s plot seem a bit quaint (because there are now various experiments that seem to say that consciousness is a kind of “deep fake” our brains provide for us – though there are still other theories, see for example Penrose), but it’s hardly fair to say in 2020 that Egan didn’t go in the “right” direction in 1994 in a book that’s shelved under “Speculative Fiction”.

    • Writer Dan says:

      Sounds like I missed something in my read. If that’s the case, Pascal, I apologize. If the description that you’ve provided for the science is sufficient, I’ll leave it at that.

      I do think that your comment perfectly illustrates the fact that some readers are more interested in the science (you), and others are more interested in the story (me). My suggestions that this story is mediocre refer wholly to the story and not the science, because that is the part of this experience that is important to me. The science is pivotal, yes, but it isn’t what I look for in a read like this.

      Thanks for the comment!

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