By Greg Egan

Years ago I read a book that had so much hard science in it that I had trouble following the story. I remembered only three things from it.

  1. A universe-sized natural disaster forced people out of the usual three dimension into multi-dimensional space.
  2. You needed a pair of extra limbs for every extra dimension.
  3. Some guy decided to keep the need to urinate because he liked the feeling of having a really good pee even though he’d uploaded himself into some kind of virtual/cyberlife.

Off and on I’ve tried to track down this book. A review from some random blog makes me think that I’m on the right track here. And yes, the first chapter was impenetrable higher dimensional cyber-creating of a consciousness from a collection of data points. I quite enjoyed the presentation of an awareness arising from a database and the feelings and frustrations it developed, but after worrying for a while about what exactly a four-dimensional waveform with a billion latitude lines would look like, I just rode it. It’s nice to learn, however, that we finally do develop the technology to avert asteroids from collision paths with Earth and that–even if our math is wrong–we’ve all got backup copies on other planets and in other solar systems.

I think this is the same book. I’ll post a full report of the urination scene when I get there. I predict it’s in the last third of the book.

Yeah, it was the right book. The confirming passage was on page 188:

He had gladly rid himself of the tedious business of defecation, but he was no more willing to give up the pleasure of emptying his bladder than he was willing give up the possibility of sex. Both acts were entirely arbitrary, now that they were divorced from any biological imperative, but that only brought them closer to other meaningless pleasures, like music. If Beethoven deserved to endure, so did urination.

When I read this book before, I blamed myself for not liking it because the science was so opaque and strange. Now I realize that, although the science is too opaque and strange for my feeble powers of comprehension, the book fails as a work of fiction. The first part was interesting, in which sentient software programs were interacting with each other, and one sentient software program–Yatima, the Orphan–is spontaneously created from the database and becomes aware of itself. Yatima is fascinating. Even more fascinating are the friendships that form and the interest one software character takes in the “Flesher” world of humans still living on the surface of the earth. There are some assumptions you have to make about backstory which didn’t bother me–I don’t mind mystery and not everything needs to be answered in a book–but the explicit and implied conflicts about relationships and the nature of existence are very interesting.

And then the sci takes over the fi and the book tanks. The second half of the book is a drag. The characters all split themselves up into clones and then the clones all split up to travel long, long distances, and character development ends. The setting takes over. It is seriously boring to read pages and pages about how this field of multidimensional algae is really the three-dimensional shadow of some complex multi-dimensional ecosystem with hermit crabs as the highest-order organism. Hermit crabs that don’t talk to each other and don’t move around. One character explores this world and then shows up and gives a little book report to the other characters, and then they all wonder how their clones in galaxies far, far away are doing. At one point two guys do some stuff, and then a millennium passes, and then they do some other stuff, in a single paragraph. How can you have a story in that? Plus if this is supposed to be a promotional piece for how cool it will be to finally rid ourselves of our mortal coils, it fails. I guess you could interpret this novel as an anti-utopia, because if you have to endure for an actual infinity you do run out of stuff to do. I think the characters are as boring as their non-biological lives are. By the end, things are taking so long they basically alter their consciousness so they are only awake like one second out of every one hundred.

For all of the promises that the book makes about the three states of being–software, robot, biological–and the intense conflicts and problems and mistrust between them, and the benefits of terrestrial living versus life in some kind of giant orbiting hard-drive, and how they pool their resources to escape the greatest natural disaster ever known, the actual plot is forgotten about. I can handle that there is tricksie theoretical physics worth musing about and extrapolating from, but don’t put it in a novel if that’s all you want to talk about. Hell, there’s already a scientific gee-whiz and what-if non-fiction genre. Why weren’t these ideas written in that form instead? Egan could have really given us some great details about the universe without cluttering it up with a failed adventure tale. Six-page lectures are very palatable when they come straight from an author instead of being routed through a character who has nothing to do but repeat information the author possesses.

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