Permutation City – Greg Egan – Review

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In the near future, the wealthy can afford a form of immortality – they can have themselves scanned and a computer simulation copy of themselves created. They live in a virtual reality world and the only visitors they can receive are other “copies” or human beings willing to spend the hours it takes to interact for a few minutes at the much slower processing speed of the computer world.

Permutation City - Amazon AffiliateVirtual Reality programmer Maria spends her spare time indulging in a seemingly meaningless and expensive hobby – attempting to create a theoretical self-sustaining bacterium within a mathematical software universe. When Maria finally succeeds where seventy other enthusiasts have failed, she is contacted by the mysterious Paul Durham. At first Durham’s offer sounds too good to be true: he will pay for Maria’s hobby if she will create a mathematical universe that has the theoretical possibility of evolving life from her simple bacteria strain.

The Paul Durham who contacts Maria is a copy of the original Paul Durham who began experimenting with computer simulation scans of himself. Durham is chasing a theory that mathematical patterns prevail over chaos, and to study this concept he needs to build a self-perpetuating computer universe. But when a universe is designed to choose mathematical purity over all else, imperfect patchwork VR “humans” are under threat of extinction.

While reading Permutation City it is worth bearing in mind that this book was published in 1994, five years before The Matrix was released. There is a lot of familiar territory here with the themes of computer simulations having as much of an identity as their human counterparts. This time, though, it is the humans who have created a haven in a computer simulation.

Permutation City is an engrossing story with a rich, character-driven plot. The science is hardcore, and contains perhaps more detail than strictly necessary to tell the story, but the overall concept is understandable and fascinating.

Review © Elsa Neal 2006