- Permutation City
infobox Book |
name = Permutation City
image_caption = Cover of first edition (hardcover)
language = English
Science fiction novel
Millennium Orion Publishing Group
release_date = 1994
media_type = Print (
pages = 310 pp
isbn = ISBN 1-857-98174-X
"Permutation City" is a 1994
science fictionnovel by Greg Eganthat explores many concepts, including quantum ontology, via various philosophical aspects of artificial lifeand simulated reality. It won the John W. Campbell Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year in 1995 and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Awardthat same year. The novel was also cited in a 2003 Scientific American[http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000F1EDD-B48A-1E90-8EA5809EC5880000&pageNumber=1&catID=2 article] on multiverses by Max Tegmark.
Themes and setting
"Permutation City" deals with a question common in
cyberpunkand postcyberpunkworks: is there any difference between a computer simulationof a person and a "real" person? More specifically, Permutation City focuses on exploring one possible model of consciousness and reality, the Logic of the Dust Theory of reality, or simply "Dust Theory", similar to the Ultimate Ensemble Mathematical Universe hypothesis proposed by Max Tegmark.
Like some other works of contemporary science fiction, it begins with the assumption that human consciousness is
Turing computable: in other words, that all aspects of genuine consciousness can be produced by a computer program. Specifically, the book deals with some possible consequences of human consciousness being amenable to mathematical manipulation, as well as some possible consequences of simulated realities. In this way, Egan attempts to deconstruct not only some standard notions of self, memory, and mortality, but also of physical reality. Over the course of the story, Egan gradually elaborates the Logic of the Dust Theory of reality, the implications of which form the premise for much of the story's intrigue.
The story explores these ideas through a variety of avenues. One is that of the Autoverse, an
artificial lifesimulator ultimately based on a cellular automatoncomplex enough to represent the substratum of an artificial chemistry. The Autoverse is a deterministic chemistry set, internally consistent and vaguely resembling real chemistry, but with only thirty-two elements and no nuclear analogue. In the novel, tiny environments, simulated in the Autoverse and filled with small populations of a simple, designed lifeform, "Autobacterium lamberti", are maintained by a dwindling community of enthusiasts obsessed with getting A. lamberti to evolve, something Autoverse chemistry seems to make extremely difficult.
Another venue for these explorations is VR, virtual realities making extensive use of patchwork
heuristics to simulate, "crudely", completely immersive and convincing physical environments, albeit at a maximum of seventeen times slower than "real" time, the limit to the optical crystal computing technology used at the time of the story. Larger VR environments, covering a greater internal volume in greater detail, are cost prohibitive even though VR worlds are computed selectively for inhabitants, reducing redundancy and extraneous objects and places to the minimum details required to provide a convincing experience to those inhabitants, e.g. a mirror not being looked at would be reduced to a reflection value, with details being "filled in" as necessary if its owner were to turn their model-of-a-head towards it.
Within the story, "Copies", digital renderings of human brains with complete subjective consciousness, the technical descendants of ever more comprehensive medical simulations, live within VR environments after a process of "scanning". Copies are the only objects within VR environments that are completely mathematically internally consistent, everything else being the product of varying levels of generalisation,
lossy compression, and hashing at all times.
Copies form the conceptual spine of the story, and much of the plot deals directly with the "lived" experience of Copies, most of whom are the survivors of wealthy billionaires suffering terminal illnesses or fatal accidents, who spend their existences in VR worlds of their creating, usually maintained by
trust funds which independently own and operate large computing resources for their sakes, separated physically and economically from most of the rest of the world's computing power, which is privatised as a fungible commodity. In this way, Egan also deals with the socioeconomic realities of life as a Copy (the global economy of the novel is in recessionand Copies often lose their vital assets), many of the less wealthy of whom live in "the Slums", a euphemism for the state of being bounced around the globe to the cheapest physical computing available at any given time in order to save money.
Many such lower-and-middle-class Copies exist at considerable "slowdown" relative to "real" time or even optimum Copy time, in order to save further money by allowing themselves to be computed momentarily from place to place and saved in suspension for cheap in the meantime. Through this, the concept of
solipsismis examined prominently, with many lower-and-middle-class Copies attending social functions called Slow Clubs, where socialising Copies agree to synchronise with the slowest person present. Many of these lower/middle-class Copies become completely deracinated from their former lives and from world events, or else become "Witnesses", who spend their time observing (at considerable time lapse) world events unfold, at the cost of any meaningful relationships with their fellow Copies. A subculture of lower/middle-class Copies, calling themselves "Solipsist Nation" after a philosophical work by their nominal founder, choose to completely repudiate the "real" world and any Copies still attached to it, reprogramming their models-of-brains and their VR environments in order to design themselves into their own personal vision of paradise, of whatever size and detail, disregarding slowdown in the process.
Further Egan novels which deal with these issues from various other perspectives include "Diaspora" and "
The plot of Permutation City follows the lives of several people in a near future reality where the Earth is ravaged by the effects of climate change, the economy and culture are largely globalised (the most commonly used denomination of currency is the ecu, from the word "ecumen", a Greek root meaning 'the inhabited world'), and civilisation has accumulated vast amounts of
ubiquitous computingpower and memory which is distributed internationally and is traded in a public market called the QIPS Exchange (QIPS from MIPS, where the "Q" is "Quadrillions").
Most importantly, from the perspective of the story, this great computing capacity is used to construct physiological models of patients for medical purposes, reducing the need for actual medical experimentation and enabling personalised medical treatments, but also enabling the creation of Copies, whole brain emulations of "scanned" humans which are detailed enough to allow for subjective conscious experience on the part of the emulation. Although not yet in widespread usage, scanning has become safe enough and common enough to allow for a subset of wealthy or dedicated humans to afford to create backups of themselves, generally with the intention of surviving the biological deaths of their bodies.
A minority of Copies exist, though they are largely perceived (with some justification) as being a collection of the thanatophobic eccentric rich. Copies do not yet possess human rights under the laws of any nation or international body, although a subgroup of the wealthiest Copies, those still involved with their own estates or businesses, finance a powerful lobby and public relations effort to advance the Copy rights cause. To this effect, the legal status of Copies is viewed as somewhat farcical even by sceptics of the cause, and many expect full Copy rights to be granted in Europe within two decades.
The plotline travels back and forth between the years of 2045 and 2050, and deals with events surrounding the life of a
Sydneyman named Paul Durham, who is obsessed with experimenting on Copies of himself (because he believes Copies of himself should be more willing to undergo experimentation). In the latter time frame, Durham is revealed to be, apparently, a con artist of some type, who travels around the world visiting rich Copies and offering them prime real estate in some sort of advanced supercomputer which, according to his pitch, will never be shut down and will be powerful enough to support any number of Copies in VR environments of their own designing at no slowdown whatsoever, no matter how preposterously opulent those environments might be.
He pitches this concept to the Copies, predicated upon the prediction that the Copy rights movement might run into resistance due to devastating climate change. As the world undergoes increasingly extreme and erratic weather, a variety of international bodies, especially the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has been particularly hard-hit by tropical storms, have proposed projects to use their vast computing resources to attempt to intervene, utilising chaotic effects to their advantage, in global weather patterns with such precision as to minimise weather-related destruction while also minimising the scale of the efforts necessary to do so. Durham predicts this will clash with the spread of Copy rights, as both Copies and weather simulations will demand increasing QIPS Exchange shares in the future. All that each Copy must do is to make the laughably small investment of two million ecus in order to bring Durham's fantasy computer into existence.
As part of his plot, Durham hires Maria Deluca, a nearly destitute Autoverse enthusiast, recently mildly famous for developing a variety of A. lamberti which evolved the capacity to metabolise an Autoverse toxin, and pays her six hundred thousand dollars to design an Autoverse program which, given a large enough computer, could potentially evolve into a planet bearing Maria's own strain of evolvable Autoverse life. Since no such computer exists, Durham attempts to convince Maria that he is a wealthy Autoverse enthusiast interested in her
evolvabilityresults and looking for a proof of conceptfor a much larger system. He also clandestinely commissions a famous virtual reality architect, Malcolm Carter, to build a full scale, high resolution VR city, Permutation City, the largest VR environment ever conceived, complete with reactive crowds and a staggering variety of full scale, high resolution scenic views.
computer fraudinvestigators begin to close in on Durham's scheme, Maria becomes implicated and is pressed into covertly gathering evidence in order to incriminate Durham; however, she comes to doubt her commitments as she learns more about Durham himself, including his time spent in psychiatric care and his callous experimentation on his own Copies, as well as his assiduously reticent Copy backers.
Meanwhile, two Slum-dwelling Solipsist Nation Copies, Peer and Kate, explore their post-human existences as well as their strained but loving relationship, until Kate's long-time friend Malcolm Carter offers to secretly hack them both, along with any moderately-sized software packages they wish, into Permutation City's
machine code, guaranteeing them a place in the city were it ever to run, but permanently debarring them from manipulating the city's implementation for fear of being deleted as extraneous cruftby automated software.
The book opens with a twenty line
anagrammatic poem, stated to have been discovered in a PDAnotepad at the psychiatric facility where Paul Durham was kept until June of 2045. Each line is an anagramof "Permutation City":
Into a mute crypt, I
Can't pity our time
Turn amity poetic
Ciao, tiny trumpet!
Maniac piety tutor
Tame purity tonic
Up, meiotic tyrant!
I taint my top cure
To it, my true panic
Put at my nice riot
To trace impunity
I tempt an outcry, I
Pin my taut erotic
Art to epic mutiny
Can't you permit it
To cite my apt ruin?
My true icon: tap it
Copy time, turn it; a
Rite to cut my pain
Atomic putty? "Rien!"
* [http://gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/PERMUTATION/Permutation.html Permutation City page on Greg Egan's website]
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