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Permutation City by Greg Egan - Book Review

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.


Permutation City is described as a post-cyberpunk and/or hard science fiction novel that was released in 1994 and written by Greg Egan. The book explores topics such as the nature of life—the difference between artificial and biological life, and what will happen once we're able to make Copies of ourselves that could potentially live forever. Other topics explored include god (the need, or lack thereof for a creator), the meaning of life, and the origin of the universe.

Permutation City by Greg Egan

On those notes, in this blog, we'll primarily focus on parts of the book that discuss the meaning of life.


What happens when you can essentially copy yourself, make an exact replica in the digital world? Is it still "you," do you continue, or does the Copy become a different individual? Is the Copy even alive? After all, if one can computationally model fusion power, digestion and metabolism, etc., they are just models and there is no consumption or output produced. So as Egan would ask, if you model the human brain mathematically, does any thought occur? Egan's character, Paul Durham, would go on to ponder, There were questions about the nature of this shared condition which the existence of Copies illuminated more starkly than anything which had come before them. Questions which needed to be explored, before the human race could confidently begin to bequeath its culture, its memories, its purpose and identity, to its successors. Copies, again, are digital representations of human beings after they have been scanned. To answer the question, one of the characters, Maria, would reason that Copies are intelligent, as to whether or not they are the same person, there is no right or wrong answer, it is just a matter of semantics, not a question of truth.


Egan also creates "The Church of the God Who Makes No Difference." Back in April, we blogged about Kurt Vonnegut's book, The Sirens of Titan. In Vonnegut's book, there is "The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent." Egan's church, The Church of the God Who Makes No Difference, is very similar, and is about a god that exists but does not make itself know to the beings in the universe and does not interfere with the natural order of the universe. One has to wonder if Egan was paying some tribute to Vonnegut here. Vonnegut's fictional take on religion takes a bit of a harsher tone, stating: there is nothing more cruel, more dangerous, more blasphemous that a man can do than to believe that—that luck, good or bad, is the hand of God! Luck, good or bad is not the hand of God. Luck is the way the wind swirls and the dust settles eons after God has passed by. Note the word "dust" here, as this is an important concept in Egan's book.


Maria's mom, Francesca, would go on to say: Even though I know God makes no difference. And if God is the reason for everything, then God includes the urge to use the word God. So whenever I gain some strength, or comfort, or meaning, from that urge, then God is the source of that strength, that comfort, that meaning. And if God—while making no difference—helps me to accept what's going to happen to me, why should that make you sad? This results from Francesca arguing with Maria on the topic of getting scanned to become a Copy. Maria just can't wrap her head around why anyone would want to die, and Francesca has no interest in continuing life beyond its natural cycle.


What is the dust theory? Dust theory postulates that all possible realities not only exist, but are equally real and mathematically self-consistence. Furthermore, these realities spontaneously emerge from that mathematical self-consistency. Max Tegmark also quoted the dust theory in his creation of the mathematical universe theory.

What does this have to do with the meaning of life? Step back for a few minutes and read Stephen Hawking's chilling take on the subject if you haven't already. If all realities, if all lives we could live, have lived, exist within the multiverse, can life have any real meaning? All lives in the multiverse (all other "yous") are as equally valid as the one you're living now. In one universe you're the sultan of Slowjamastan, in another you hold the record for organizing the largest Smurf meeting in the world (and you did it during COVID), and still in another everything appears to be exactly the same as it is now, except instead of having 150,000 hairs on your head, you have 149,999. But, at least you're not bald—yet. Hawking's answer is ironically—unequivocally, yes! Life still has meaning in the multiverse. Sure, you're still just a hollow being with no soul, no ghost in the machine, just an automaton imitating an autonomous being. But that is okay, just because free will doesn't exist, doesn't mean you can't find meaning in this universe. The meaning is found in this universe being personal to you, and you alone (not your copies in the multiverse).


Back to dust theory. Paul's believes that when a Copy dies, is turned off, or deleted, consciousness still persists. Having done a number of experiments on himself, Paul attests to have experienced this—experienced this 20+ times! That is, he is currently Copy number 23 or 24 ... or something like that. Who's really counting anyway? Doubly so if you're slightly psychotic. He is so sure his theory is correct, that he builds a virtual reality universe (the TVC universe) using cellular automaton, then kills himself. As Maria would think to herself after finding the body: Durham had believed that his Copy had achieved immortality—and provided the dust hypothesis. The whole purpose of his own life had been fulfilled by the project's completion. What had she expected him to do, after that? Carry on selling insurance?


What Maria didn't realize at the time is that when Paul created the virtual world, a world that could last for eternity, a Copy of her would be awakened in that reality. When Maria was awakened, she was angry at Paul and thought the following: Francesca was gone. Aden was gone. All her friends. All the people she'd ever met: in the flesh, on the networks. All the people she'd ever heard of: musicians and writers, philosophers and movie stars, politicians and serial killers. As Egan would clarify, They weren't even dead; their lives didn't lie in her past, whole and comprehensible. They were scattered around her like dust: meaningless, disconnected.

Francesca was gone. Aden was gone. All her friends. All the people she'd ever met: in the flesh, on the networks. All the people she'd ever heard of: musicians and writers, philosophers and movie stars, politicians and serial killers. As Egan would clarify, They weren't even dead; their lives didn't lie in her past, whole and comprehensible. They were scattered around her like dust: meaningless, disconnected.

Later Maria would go on to reason that despite her anger, being able to interact with the Autoverse, and a new species that she was responsible, in part, for creating, could give her new life some meaning.


Maria, like Paul, a few other rich people, and a couple of Solipsist Nation stowaways are condemned to eternal life; and what does one do if condemned to live forever? Two stowaways that cannot interact with anyone else, only each other, face that dilemma. If there are only a finite number of possibilities, possible lives to live, then living forever eventually becomes meaningless. Peer (one of the stowaways) reached such a conclusion, Immortality would have been meaningless, trapped in a "machine" with a finite number of possible states in a finite time he would have exhausted the list of every possible thing he could be. Only the promise of eternal growth made sense of eternal life.


For Peer, he'd spend centuries studying physics, or making tables, or drawing beetles—and in doing so, he found fulfillment, found happiness. He programmed himself to do so, to be happy no matter what he was doing and to eventually move on to find something new to give fulfillment and to give his life meaning. From the narrator, The random stuttering from pretext to pretext which granted his existence its various meanings. Eventually, Peer realized that he would run out of things to do, and eventually start to repeat things over and over again. So he gives up, and decides that all the lives he lived could now become a nation of people. The Solipsist Nation, could become a nation on its own with more than one person—his happiness would become the happiness of his parthenogenetic offspring (of sorts) and through that happiness he could live forever, not as an individual, but as a nation of people.


Peer: We'll leave this place. Launch a universe of our own. It's what we should have done long ago.

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Kate: We'll create them? Run the ontogenesis software? Adam-and-Eve a new world of our own?

Peer: No. I'll become them. A thousand, a million. Whatever you want. I'll become the Solipsist Nation.

Kate: Become? What does that mean? You don't have to become a nation. You can build it with me—then sit back and watch it grow."

Peer: What have I become, already? An endless series of people—all happy for their own private reasons Linked together by the faintest thread of memory. Why keep them spread out in time? Why go on pretending that there's one 'real' person, enduring through all those arbitrary changes?

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Kate: You can't become the Solipsist Nation. That's nonsense....

Peer: They'll be happy, won't they? From time to time? For their own strange reasons?

Kate: Yes, But—

Peer: That's all I am, now. That's all that defines me. So when they're happy, they'll be me.


Maria would also ponder if living forever was the right pathway forward. After all, she struggled with coming to terms with her mother's death and unwillingness to become a Copy so many years ago. She thinks, Maybe the time came, for everyone, when there was no way forward, no other choice but death. Maybe the Lambertians were right, maybe "infinity" was meaningless ... and "immortality" was a mirage no human should aspire to.


The Lambertians were the species Maria was partially responsible for creating. Evolution in the Autoverse did the rest. Once the Lambertians reached a certain level of intelligence and number of individuals, the Autoverse began to overtake Permutation City. Though the members of Permutation City try to talk to the Lambertians and tell them that they were their creators, The Lambertians do not believe the idea was logical. So the intelligent design story is dismissed. Consequently, the TVC universe begins to erase Permutation City, as the idea of needing a creator is neither needed nor logically self-consistent. Eventually, most members of Permutation City would be able to escape to a new TVC universe that does not contain the Autoverse.


Paul decides to opt out, to end his life again, to end the cycle. But Maria talks to him, wanting him to continue, so Paul reprograms himself not to want to opt out anymore, to continue living with Maria. Onward and upward. This, of course, got Maria thinking if Paul reprogrammed himself, how much of the man she'd known remained? Where does one draw the line with self-transformation, when does one change so much that they are no longer the same person they once were? Of course, people are not static things, they are self-conscious processes unfolding in space and time.


Overall, if you're a fan of science fiction, Permutation City is a must read, if not only for the fact that it explores our future, the importance of meaning in that future, new theories, god, and immortality. If you read the book, let us know what you thought and what we missed by commenting below.


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