I first heard of Greg Egan from people raving about Permutation City , which for some reason led me to read his next few books — the brilliant short story collection Axiomatic and the slightly incoherent but utterly thought-provoking Distress — which I loved. His later books I didn’t care for so much, but when I went back and read his first novel, Quarantine , I found in it the virtues I’d admired in his other books.

So finally, I went back and read Permutation City, the book which I’d originally heard so much about, and which was written smack-dab at the height of Egan’s creative powers. I completely expected to love this book, but instead was disappointed. It’s a story about virtualized computer people and cellular automata as the basis of reality (prefiguring that Mathematica dude, I guess), and there are two problems with it.

The first is the virtualized people themselves. Egan has never been a particularly character-oriented writer, but this is a low on par with Diaspora. I just don’t give a damn about any of these people; they all seem utterly unreal in the way that all fiction characters are, but oughtn’t seem to be.

The second problem is the science bits. I understand that you have to palm a few cards and wave a few hands if you’re writing scientifiction, and I let that slide. But when your entire plot revolves around the palmed cards and waving hands, I get a lot less forgiving. And too much of the story here depends on the specific details that Egan is fudging.

It’s not a terrible book, though. There are some insightful bits about computer processing power (Egan is not a Singularitist, here — his virtual people run much slower than real people, and their virtual worlds are collections of hacks, because processing power on that scale is expensive and not getting cheaper), and amidst the mumbo-jumbo there are some more interesting points about copies and randomness and whatever else.

But ultimately, interesting side details or no, a book in which I care about neither the characters nor the story isn’t going to excite me. Egan can be a great writer, but this bizarrely reads more like late, degenerate Egan. (So much so, in fact, that I’m tempted to wonder if the couple of bad books I read didn’t represent a permanent decline at all, but just a couple of bad books. Anyone read his later stuff (Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence)?)


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