Thursday, June 21, 2012

Some Meandering Observations on Greg Egan's "Zendegi"

The Amazon reviewers are divided. A lot of them dislike the slow pace and the way the story is grounded in the near now (2012 and the next twenty years) instead of zooming off into a zany superscience future. Now, I think the Egan novels that zoom off into a zany superscience future miss as often as they hit (thinking Schild's Ladder here) and I have always preferred his work that is grounded in good science instead of flaky hippy-dippy perversions of Quantum Mechanics (I'm looking disapprovingly at you, Distress and Teranesia). And while stories pondering the social implications of impossible technological advances can be interesting, I reckon they are less worthwhile than stories pondering the social implications of just vaguely possible technologicial advances,

So for me, Zendegi being grounded in the near now, and being concerned with the nitty-gritty of how we get there (uploading ourselves to the interwebz) from here (here) are big positives.

One danger of working in the near now is that it is easy to end up with characters who are too much like yourself (see Dr Clam's Rules of Writing, #5). Now, the story of Zendegi is told in a tight third-person narrative following two main characters. One of them is a typical Egan main character, with a fairly sketchy background and a fractal dimension between 2.5 and 2.7. The other is a male Sydneysider of the latte-sucking variety who grew up in the eighties and comes with a raft of detailed life experiences and pop-culture references. Which are of course hugely entertaining for all Australian readers who grew up in the eighties. This character (whose name is Martin) is an absolutely convincing three-dimensional portrait of a dull male latte-sucking Sydneysider who grew up in the eighties. He has the absolutely uninteresting conventional unexamined convictions of his tribe. I really hope he is not Greg Egan. But that's not that important. The problem is more that he distorts the novel and makes the other characters seem less real by being so much more grounded in reality than they are.

Spoilers, ahoy!

Martin lives in Iran for 15 years, but luckily is married to an Iranian woman who spookily shares all his absolutely uninteresting conventional unexamined convictions, so they all stay unexamined. His wife dies tragically. He is diagnosed with something that will be be fatal soon. He has no relations in Australia, so his 6-year old son will soon be left to grow up with Iranian friends. Even though Iran in the novel is rapidly undergoing rapid social change, something like Franco-Spain to Almodovar-Spain, what freaks Martin out about dying is that he is going to leave his son to be brought up in the backward culture of these 'lesser breeds without the law'. Clearly the solution will involve some sort of being uploaded to the interwebz, and the story starts to pick up pace. Anyway, stuff happens. If you like Egan at all, you ought to read it. If you don't you probably haven't gotten this far into the post.

I told you those plotty details about Martin having a terminal illness and being obsessed with how he can influence his son's life after his death in order to introduce this quote, from when he is selling the bookstore his wife and he used to run in Teheran before things went bad:

"Then he found an empty packing box and took it to the English language section. Javeed would have ten million electronic books to choose from, but Martin still wanted to pass on something from his own century. From the novels he picked out The Grapes of Wrath, Animal Farm, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse-Five; from non-fiction, The Diary of Anne Frank, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Gulag Archipelago. He was tempted to go on and fill the box to its rim, but once he started fretting over omissions he knew there’d be no end to it."

Okay, I agree they're all good books. Very worthy. But- if you dear departed father left you a box of books like that, wouldn't you say he was a bit - emo? Isn't the overall effect a teensy bit bleak?[1] He's basically telling his kid: 'life sucks, then you die.'  Sheesh, Martin...

This got me thinking what seven books I would put in such a box, keeping to Martin's balance of fiction/non-fiction and English/translations-into-English, and I came up with these:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court - Mark Twain
Marianne, the Magus and the Manticore - Sheri S. Tepper
The Cyberiad - Stanislaw Lem
Diaspora - Greg Egan

Selected essays 1934-1943 - Simone Weil
St Thomas Aquinas - G. K. Chesterton
How to Make our Ideas Clear - Charles Peirce

Each of those fiction books has a good mix of comedy and tragedy, profound thinky bits and purely exhilarating entertaining bits, and breathes something of the potential of the sentient spirit, despite being written by wildly different people with wildly different ideas. IMHO.

For the non-fiction, Weil and Chesterton both write about the battle for the soul of Languedoc. The worldviews they approach it with are diametrically opposed. They disagree about absolutely everything in European history. But, they are both clear, logical, passionate, uplifting, and convincing in their arguments that there were truths and beauties in Mediaeval civilisation that modern civilisation has lost to our detriment. Together they provide a sense of perspective that will do Javeed a lot better service than a focus at the maggoty horrors of the 20th century. And to complete the balance, Peirce gives a razor-sharp exposition of the one thing in our civilisation that makes it unequivocally better than the old days. He, too, is clear, logical, passionate and uplifting.

[1]: They are all also strangely limited in time. They are all productions from humanity's dark night of the soul, the nightmare decades at the dead heart of the short shithouse century, 1914-1991.