As imperfect as it is, I really enjoyed aspects of Greg Egan’s latest novel. I found it to be Egan’s most readable novel, vividly realised and economicaly presented. The thing is that by its very nature Zendegi can only be enjoyed in a very fragmentary fashion, unfortunately.
Zendegi is a near future novel that revolves around questions of identity, both personal and national. The plot revolves around two main characters, whose stories are told in alternating chapters. One is Martin Seymour, an Autralian journalist who is sent to Iran to cover the 2012 elections and decides to stay there. The other is Nasim Golestani, a young Iranian expatriate whose work in mapping the human consciousness becomes the groundwork for the creation of a very popular MMORPG, Zendegi. Their stories become entwined when Nasim returns to Iran with her mother and they are brought together by political and personal circumstances. Martin suffers from cancer and asks Nasim to help him have his consciousness mapped and become a Proxy (an avatar) in the game, in order for part of him to be able to keep providing guidance to his son.
My main complaint is that the story moves in a rather facile fashion, with the background political and developments working themselves out in a rather simplified way and the plot resolving itself very conveniently. The whole thing is narrated very elliptically, with situations left unfinished and characters sketchily presented. It feels like Egan was undecided about things and he couldn’t reconcile the personal aspect of the story (Martin and his son) with the scientific one (Nasim and the mapping of consciousness), finally leaving both underdeveloped. The problems of the articulation and construction of identity and consciousness that appear to be forming the core of Egan’s novel are integrated within the characters’ everyday experience, without Egan having to resort to extreme infodumping, but we don’t really get anywhere. The same goes with the fact that he decided to set the story in Iran. Even though he is at his strongest when he presents everyday life in Iran, the little rituals that frame social interaction, that aspect again remains incomplete.
It’s a shame that Egan couldn’t really juggle his themes and choices. Parts of this novel work really well and it’s a shame that he didn’t take his time with rest of it.