There’s a running joke throughout Greg Egan’s 1994 Permutation City that neatly encapsulates both all the good things and all the bad things about the book in general. Namely, a TV show has recently been created in their day-after-tomorrow world that was specifically designed to sell the just-invented concept of virtual reality to the mouth-breathing masses, a show that’s been deliberately dumbed down to make it more palpable to the slack-jawed yokels, in which crazy fantastical things are always happening within a virtual space that doesn’t even begin to conform to reality, which for anyone familiar with this period in sci-fi history is very, very clearly Egan poking fun of the other cyberpunk novels of those early-’90s years that got a lot more famous than his, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. But in the actual virtual reality that all the smart, rich people in Egan’s universe actually do inhabit, the ultimate goal is for the virtual world to match the boring real world as exactly as possible, and the most excited anyone ever gets is when their avatars count out loud from one to ten to check the lag between their time and our own. (Or to quote The Simpsons: “Perfectly level flying is the supreme challenge of the scale model pilot!”)
That says everything you need to know about about Egan as an author, a “hard” science-fiction writer who is also a working mathematics doctorate holder in his day job, and who has built an award-winning and cultishly popular career writing speculative novels that stick as closely to real science as humanly possible. I think that’s great, I want there to be no mistake, and I’m glad that these kinds of books exist for all those science-oriented readers who get frustrated by the “soft” sci-fi books that tend to be the big bestsellers of the genre and have much more of an impact on the general culture. (If you ever want to cause an aneurysm in a hard sci-fi fan, ask them for their opinion on Star Wars.) But that said, hard sci-fi is generally not really my cup of tea — in fact, I doubt I would’ve ever read this unless it had been recommended by a new friend of mine in Chicago, fellow hard sci-fi author Jeremy John — and as a result I found Permutation City to be only a bit above mediocre, with a central premise revolving around quantum mechanics and multidimensional consciousness that might as well have been freaking Hogwarts, as little as I could keep up with the high-level real science being bandied about.#GregEgan's 1994 #PermutationCity falls squarely into hard sci-fi territory, for better and worse Click To Tweet
Unfortunately for hard sci-fi authors, most of us are never going to consider it a thrilling climax when a group of scientists flip a switch, stare at some dots on a computer screen, perform some calculations, then excitedly declare, “It worked! It worked!,” which is why hard sci-fi is fated to always exist on the cultish outskirts of genre literature. And despite his publisher’s best efforts to “sex up” this story, through the cyberpunk-looking cover art and a tagline that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual plot (“Ten Million People On A Chip!”), Permutation City falls squarely into hard sci-fi territory, making it easy to see why his “dumbed-down” ’90s colleagues like Gibson and Stephenson are now well-loved mainstream figures while Egan is still barely known beyond his core fan base of Larry-Niven-loving convention veterans. It should all be kept in mind before picking up a copy yourself.