An Interview With
Greg Egan

Counting Backwards From Infinity

Greg Egan, Australia's premier writer of 'hard sf', recently saw his second novel, Permutation City, published by Millennium. His critical acclaim and commercial recognition grows, both here and overseas, and Eidolon recently caught up in an attempt to discover more about the origins of the novel and the process of doing what he does.

What do you see as the central theme - the raison d'être - of Permutation City?

My main goal with Permutation City was to take the idea of conscious software absolutely seriously, and push the logical consequences of that premise as far as possible. Conscious software - whether it's some kind of scanned human duplicate, or some AI created from scratch - has been used as a throwaway prop in the genre for decades, but it's usually treated as being about as philosophically interesting as a laser cannon. I thought it was time someone looked at it much more analytically.

I was also trying to debunk the idea that's being pushed by quite a few people these days - including respected scientists like Paul Davies, in The Mind Of God - that the universe somehow requires a creator to stand behind all the physics. As Richard Dawkins pointed out on Late Night Live recently, it's just the old "argument from design" retreating from biology, where it's been totally discredited, to cosmology, where it can hide more easily. The Church of the God Who Makes No Difference is a piss-take of that trend - and the whole cosmology of Permutation City turns the idea of a creator into a logical impossibility.

Do you feel you "succeeded" with Permutation City? At what level?

I believe I succeeded in pushing the logic as far as it would go - if not further. And I hope I've improved my characterisation and style, since Quarantine. It would be nice to think that anybody who reads Permutation City might be immunised for life against the kind of fiction which treats AI as inconsequential wallpaper - but I think that would be extremely optimistic. As for critical success, reviews have been pretty equivocal so far - except for a rave in The Guardian - so I don't seem to have exactly set the genre on fire.

What is it that most heartens you when you read reviews of your work, and do reviews influence your perception of the success or otherwise of that work?

What heartens me most in reviews is when the reviewer actually notices what I was trying to do, and judges the book's success on that basis. Oliver Morton in The Modern Review said that Quarantine was structurally flawed, poorly paced, and frequently clumsy - but he still liked it more than The Hollow Man, and said it "achieved what the fiction of ideas should always aspire to". Brian Stableford's review in NYRSF was similarly encouraging. They both understood the implications of everything I'd put into the book. They got the point. As does Mark Kelly in Locus, with virtually all of my short work.

But when someone doesn't get the point - like John Clute, with Permutation City - I have to accept that it's at least partly my fault. I mean, if anagram poems and chapter headings, references to Foucault's Pendulum and the permutations of the Judaic Temurah, and cutting up the story "Dust" and scattering the pieces throughout the novel, still aren't enough to get the idea through, in more literary terms, to someone who baulks at thinking seriously about computers, then obviously I wasn't working hard enough to make the book accessible. There are plenty of reviewers I have no desire whatsoever to please - Clute isn't one of them - but I'd still like to make sure that they understand exactly what it is they're hating.

How much of Permutation City is pure imagination - fantasy? How much do you really see as possible, or even likely to come about?

I believe that software can be conscious. I believe that computer programs are nothing but long lists of numbers, and if they're not interacting with the outside world it makes no difference how, where, or when those numbers are physically represented. I believe that all of Durham's computer experiments would work exactly as described - the Copy would be oblivious to whether it was being run on one computer in one place, or scattered all over the planet. You could certainly argue that, with the time-reversed experiments, the experience of the Copy would first arise whenever the "subjectively final" state of mind was pre-loaded with memories - by whatever means - as well as when that state of mind was played backwards, later. But I don't think that changes anything. And I believe that given a long enough list of random numbers, some subset of those numbers, in some order, must correspond with a computer simulation of consciousness. In fact, I suspect that a single 0 and a single 1 are all you need to create all universes. You just re-use them.

When it comes to what you need for an autonomous universe, though, I'm just speculating wildly. I have no idea whether or not the universe launched in the book really would hang together - but I don't think the idea is intrinsically ludicrous.

In terms of evidence for any of this, I'm sure there'll be conscious software in my lifetime. But only a Copy of me could ever test the rest of it, and I doubt that I'll live to see scanning.

Do you have any amusing anecdotes about the writing of Permutation City?

Legend's new guard did a long, slow, excruciatingly polite and dignified charade, which my agent and I finally translated as "Please fuck off, you horrible little sod", when I was about half-way through Permutation City. I was very lucky, because Millennium immediately offered to buy up my contracts, but it was still a bit dispiriting.

How has changing publishers like that affected your work?

If I'd failed to change publishers after my editor left Legend it would have screwed things up badly, but Orion/Millennium was really just everyone from the old Century/Legend, setting up a new company. Deborah Beale was fantastic - she edited the first two books - and unfortunately she's moved on to a different line of work, but I have a great new editor for Distress, Caroline Oakley, so it's all going very well with Millennium. I've just signed a contract with them for Distress, and a fourth novel.

How much of what you're writing now is based on ideas from years ago, and how much on recently developed ideas?

I think I'm going back to old themes in different guises, as well as breaking new ground. The ultimate message of "Chaff" and "Cocoon" is the same as that of "Axiomatic" - everything from respect for human life to "the heart of darkness" to sexuality is encoded in our brains in material form, and eventually we'll be able to reach in and change all of it, at will. I think they're three very different stories, though - and I think the newer ones make more sophisticated use of the same underlying concern.

"Our Lady of Chernobyl" explored some completely new issues for me - such as the responsibilities we have towards people who believe things which, frankly, just aren't true. I certainly don't think there's any duty to "respect" every culture - in the ludicrous sense of pretending that every world view is equally valid - but I do believe that there are some complex moral issues, and I tried to address them in "Chernobyl". I also tried to deal with the whole business of religion as a process of externalising the things in ourselves which we value - as if it might safeguard them to separate them out and attribute them to "God", or "the Virgin Mary", or a courier named Gianna De Angelis.

Tell us about the forthcoming collection of your short fiction.

The collection has been retitled Axiomatic [from Unstable Orbits ], and it should reach Australia by mid-1995 [April 1995 in the UK - Ed]. The exact contents haven't been fixed yet, but it will include two new stories.

How has concentrating on your novel-writing affected your short story output? Are the two processes (and their end-results) equally satisfying?

I have less time for short stories now - but I enjoyed almost every day I spent writing "Chaff" and "Our Lady of Chernobyl" because I could more or less see the whole work in my head, all the way through. With novels, you cling to the big picture, but you can get bogged down in the details. In the end, though, I think they're both worth it, or I wouldn't be doing both.

So, Distress is next. What will that be about? Are you still pursuing the dovetailing of philosophy and physics that formed themes in Quarantine and Permutation City?

Distress is my third, and probably last, subjective cosmology novel. It's about a science journalist covering the Einstein Centenary Conference on Theories of Everything, which is taking place on Stateless - an artificial, bioengineered coral island run by anarchists. It's about people migrating out of the nations and genders they were born in, because they're tired of being judged, and spoken for, on the basis of sex or nationality. And it's about the clash between that drive to escape, and a Theory of Everything which implies one physicist with one equation "speaking for" the entire universe. So there's cultural politics, biotechnology, and TOEs. Plus large jellyfish, mutant cholera, Voluntary Autists, war, assassinations, Ignorance Cults, Anthrocosmology, coral-quakes, gender-neutral pronouns, and inland diving (don't ask).

It should be out in the UK late in 1995, and here in early 1996.

Why does "philosophy of consciousness/nature of reality" seem to interest you so much?

Take away consciousness and reality and there's not much left.

What are your personal goals for your work? I guess it's the perennial question: why are you doing it?

I want to become a much, much better writer technically - without caving in to commercial pressure and becoming one more dumb conformist churning out platitudes and emotional hand-jobs. I want to continue writing novels which are more concerned with the way the universe might actually work than with worshipping the genre itself, or with parroting all the ossified conventional wisdom of mainstream literature - but I want to do it so well that I can still make a living, and earn some critical respect.

Whether that's possible remains to be seen.

Originally appeared pp. 42-45, Eidolon 15, July 1994.
Copyright © 1994 Eidolon Publications.