In the not-so-distant future (at least from where we are now, Permutation City was first published in 1994), virtual copies of humans have become a thing. Since it takes a lot of computational power to run these, the faster (as in, experiencing time closer to what we experience) ones are very expensive, while there are cheaper versions for the lowlier among us. The story revolves around Paul Durham, whom we get to know from a few different angles: 1) Paul is experimenting with a copy of himself that is getting more and more appalled at the “original” Paul; 2) Paul is selling an insurance scheme to super-rich copies to prevent their annihilation in case of a real-world apocalypse; 3) Paul is contracting a programmer called Maria (favourite past-time: playing with artificial chemistry in something called the Autoverse) to create a blueprint for a self-evolving virtual planet. How do all of these Pauls come together? In an interesting and a little bit mind-bending way, but no spoilers here.
There’s a lot going on in Permutation City: the characters are engaging, the story keeps you guessing what will happen next (although there are some rather stretched-out science moments). The state of the world in the book works well, and seems quite plausible, even 15 years after the book was originally published – however, we don’t get to know a lot of the politics in this future.
Some of the super sciencey parts of the book were beyond me – it’s certainly possible to understand the storyline without them, but I did struggle a few times, for example with understanding the purpose of the endless experiments Paul is running on his copy. Also, if someone can explain to me how and where exactly a shut-down computer program can exist and expand on its own, I’d be very grateful. I learnt that science fiction can be divided into soft and hard science fiction, with hard science fiction being characterised by its scientific truthfulness and accuracy. Permutation City may be hard science fiction but it does expect quite a lot of existing knowledge of programming and biology from the reader.
Title: Permutation City Author: Greg Egan First Published: 1994