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Since Permutation City was published in , many readers have raised the same issues with me, again and again. So, almost thirteen years later, here is a kind of self-interview on the most contentious aspects of the book. Q1: In the novel, Paul Durham runs a Copy of himself out of temporal order, skipping its mental state forward in time by ten seconds and then computing the intervening states backwards.
Surely leaping over ten seconds of time without computing the intervening states would be impossible? So why did I include these scenes? Because this seemed like the simplest way to dramatise the notion that the arrangement of the successive states of the Copy in time or space should not affect its subjective experience. To give a trivial example, instead of storing and manipulating all the relevant quantities as binary floating-point numbers, they could be encoded in a variety of different schemes.
Moving beyond that, the way in which the representation of the data reflected the three-dimensional layout of the physical objects being modelled could be obfuscated in various ways.
Q3: Given that some of the characters in the novel take the Dust Theory seriously, why should they care whether or not they achieve any of their specific goals? Surely the same total set of events must happen to versions of them, regardless? A3: I believe human nature is such that people would still act as they did in the novel. Obviously some people, faced with this idea, would become passive.
I chose the more interesting story. Actually, it could be argued that absolutely any set of experiences should be possible according to the Dust Theory, including this one. A5: Not very seriously, although I have yet to hear a convincing refutation of it on purely logical grounds. For example, some people have suggested that a sequence of states could only experience consciousness if there was a genuine causal relationship between them. The whole point of the Dust Theory, though, is that there is nothing more to causality than the correlations between states.
If every arrangement of the dust that contained such observers was realised, then there would be billions of times more arrangements in which the observers were surrounded by chaotic events, than arrangements in which there were uniform physical laws.
A6: Something quite separate from the issues with the Dust Theory mentioned above, although these are all valid points. What I regret most is my uncritical treatment of the idea of allowing intelligent life to evolve in the Autoverse. Sure, this is a common science-fictional idea, but when I thought about it properly some years after the book was published , I realised that anyone who actually did this would have to be utterly morally bankrupt.
To get from micro-organisms to intelligent life this way would involve an immense amount of suffering, with billions of sentient creatures living, struggling and dying along the way.
This is potentially an important issue in the real world. If the first AI was created that way, it would have every right to despise its creators. Burks editor , University of Illinois Press, Urbana, , pp.
I think there's value in what Egan is trying to do, but I think the task of weaving together deep understanding of mathematics and science with fiction of literary merit is in some sense so great an undertaking that it's ultimately beyond his ability. As someone trained in mathematics, I don't get the feeling of deep aesthetic appreciation from Egan's writing, rather, it appears like a superficially more complicated form of technobabble window-dressing. Of course, many people disagree with me That Egan quote which shows up over and over again, where he says that people should be prepared to work through the details with pen and paper, feels irksome for some reason
Since Permutation City was published in , many readers have raised the same issues with me, again and again. So, almost thirteen years later, here is a kind of self-interview on the most contentious aspects of the book. Q1: In the novel, Paul Durham runs a Copy of himself out of temporal order, skipping its mental state forward in time by ten seconds and then computing the intervening states backwards. Surely leaping over ten seconds of time without computing the intervening states would be impossible? So why did I include these scenes?
Permutation City is a science-fiction novel by Greg Egan that explores many concepts, including quantum ontology , through various philosophical aspects of artificial life and simulated reality. Sections of the story were adapted from Egan's short story "Dust", which dealt with many of the same philosophical themes. Campbell Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year in and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award the same year.
Wagner Support SF Reviews. Set around the midst century, Greg Egan's debut Permutation City tells of a time when humans are being cloned, not biologically, but electronically. The book remains a seminal title in what was then the fledgling transhumanist SF subgenre, that would later evolve towards singularitarian SF. Here, computers possess the ability to make perfect replicas of a person's mind, and install it into a "Copy" in a virtual environment. There are drawbacks to this technology, not the least of which is that the processors that run these copies are nowhere near up to speed to mimic perfectly the real experience of living. Paul Durham has been experimenting with his own Copies, and trying to figure out a way to lower the bail-out rate, resulting when Copies decide they cannot take the sterile environments they are in and elect to be shut down. Durham believes he has found a way for Copies to live in, literally, their own universe, not even dependent upon computers to run it.