Diaspora by Greg Egan

Anders Sandberg (asa@nada.kth.se)
17 Oct 1997 18:38:06 +0200

Micro review: WOW!!!

Mini Review: This novel has everything: divergent human species,
uploads, nanotechnology, gamma ray bursters, traversable wormholes,
picotechnology, multidimensional physics and the most bizarre
aliens I have ever read about.

Diaspora is a posthuman novel from the beginning. Only one of the
main characters have ever had a biological body, and the entire
first chapter contains the description of how small infomorphs are
made (the storks have been replaced by genetic algorithms, simulated
gradients of morphogens, neural networks and hebbian learning).
Most of the events occurs inside the virtual worlds running in the
"polis", dense nanocomputer networks where the infomorphs ("citizens")
live, although these realities are often seamless blends between
physical and virtual reality (one of the main questions is whether
the physical world does matter or not - some citizens prefer to
withdraw from reality altogether, while others crusade for "realism").

Of course, Egan could not make the characters too alien, since
one of the principal requirements of a working novel is that the
reader is able to identify with the characters. So despite the
fact that they rewrite parts of their minds, copy, merge, download
into physical bodies or branch out in mutated copies they are
pretty human in many ways. Egan consistently uses gender neutral
pronoun for the infomorphs ("ve" instead of "he/she", "ver"
instead of "his/her" and so on), although some of the characters
still gave me a male of female impression.

What really makes Diaspora into a great novel is the magnificient
imagination and scientific know-how. This is hard science fiction
as it is meant to be: no rayguns or warp drives, but ten-dimensional
grand unified theories, the rotational dynamics of binary
neutron stars and high level particle physics instead. I must admit
that I wonder how much this book does require of the reader,
I found myself reviewing my notes from my old course in topology
at one point and sketching diagrams of fibre bundles. Hopefully
the ordinary reader can simply accept the concepts as technobabble,
technobabble which turns out to be well researched and consistent.
Regardless of its level, it is clear that Egan has one of the most
fertile imaginations around, rivalled only by Iain Banks and
David Zindell. Unlike them, he really manages to show how the
miracles are done, often in surpising detail.

As a while Diaspora is a grandiose zoom outwards, from the bits
in a nanocomputer hidden under the siberian tundra to ever more
cosmic scales. When the reader has got used to one miracle Egan
zooms out again, and the previously titanic suddenly looks rather
commonplace. The tension lies not as much in the plot as in the
question: how will Egan outdo *this*? And Egan does really
succeed. The final monument to the creativity of intelligent
life and the infinite possibilities of physics is truly
impressive, and points towards even more grandiose possibilities.

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!
asa@nada.kth.se                            http://www.nada.kth.se/~asa/
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y