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Diaspora is a hard science fiction novel by Australian writer Greg Egan, published in 1997.

Plot introductionEdit

This novel is set in a posthuman future, in which transhumanism long ago (during the mid 21st century) became the default philosophy embraced by the vast majority of human cultures.

The novel began life as a short story entitled "Wang's Carpets" which originally appeared in New Legends, a collection of short stories edited by Greg Bear (Legend, London, 1995), and was later adapted, and included, as a chapter in the novel.

A glossary is included, which explains many of the complicated terms in the novel. Egan deftly invents several new theories of physics, beginning with Kozuch Theory, the dominant physics paradigm for nearly nine hundred years before the beginning of the novel. Kozuch Theory treats elementary particles as semi-point-like wormholes, whose properties can be explained entirely in terms of their geometries in six dimensions. Certain assumptions, common to Greg Egan literature, are made to enable the plot, such as the digital mutability of reality (that there is no difference between any real thing and a sufficiently similar mathematical replica of that thing).

For the story, Egan adopts Keri Hulme's gender-neutral pronouns 've', 'vis', 'ver' for most of the characters in the novel, who opt to have a neutral gender.

The world of the novelEdit

By 2975 CE (Universal Time), the year in which the novel begins, humanity has speciated into three distinct groupings:

  1. fleshers, biological societies consisting of statics, the original, naturally-evolving race of Homo sapiens, and a wide variety of exuberant derivatives, whose genes have been modified beyond the static baseline. These include enhancements such as disease resistance, life extension, intelligence amplification, and the ability to allow selected transhumans to thrive in new environments, such as the sea. There even exists a subculture (the dream apes) whose ancestors bred out the capacity for speech and some of the higher brain functions, apparently in order to attain a primal innocence and rapport with nature. Unlike pre-Introdus (21st century) society, the vast profusion of qualitatively different types of fleshers has made any sort of global civilisation impossible. This problem has prompted the development of a culture of "Bridgers" who modify their own minds to form a chain of intermediates between exuberant strains.
  2. gleisner robots - individual software intelligences housed inside artificial anthropoid, or flesher-shaped, physical bodies (from a design by a person or corporation named Gleisner[1]) who interact with the world in flesher-paced "real time," a fact which they regard as important, as they consider the polis citizens to be too remote and solipsistic. The gleisners live in space, mostly in the asteroid belt, and various other places in the Solar System; it is implied that they long ago agreed to leave Earth to the fleshers to avoid conflict. For hundreds of years before the beginning of the novel, gleisners have been building a grand interstellar fleet with which to colonise as much of the universe as physically possible.
  3. the citizens[2] - intelligence as disembodied computer software running entirely within simulated reality-based communities known as polises.[3] These, by far, are the majority of "humanity" at this time, followed in a distant second place by the gleisners. Together with vast networks of sensors, probes, drones and satellites, they collectively make up the Coalition of Polises, the backbone and bulk of human civilisation. They interact primarily in virtual environments called scapes, through the use of avatars or icons. The citizens of the Coalition view the gleisners and their quest as puerile and ultimately futile, believing that only "bacteria with spaceships . . . knowing no better and having no choice" would attempt to deface (by means of mass colonisation) the galaxy, especially if virtual realities afford limitless possibilities at a small fraction of the total resource consumption.

Diaspora focuses in large part on the nature of life and intelligence in a post-human context, and questions the meaning of life and the meaning of desires. If, for instance, the meaning of human life and human desires are tied up with the meaning of ancestral human biology ("to spread one's genes"), then what is the meaning of lives and desires, and what is the basis of values when biology is no longer a part of life?

Plot summaryEdit

Diaspora begins with a description of "orphanogenesis," the creation of a citizen without any ancestors (most citizens are descendants of fleshers who were uploaded at some point), and the subsequent upbringing of newborn Yatima within Konishi polis. Yatima is already old within a few real-time days, because citizens' subjective time is about 800 times as rapid as flesher and gleisner time. Early on, Yatima and a friend, Inoshiro, use abandoned gleisner bodies to visit a Bridger colony near the ruins of Atlanta on Earth.

Years later, the gleisner Karpal, using a gravitational wave detector, determines that a binary neutron star system in Lacerta has collapsed, releasing a huge burst of energy. The system's stable orbit had been predicted to last for another seven million years. By analysing irregularities in the orbit, Karpal discovers that the devastating burst of energy will reach Earth within the next four days. Yatima and Inoshiro return to Earth to urge the fleshers to either migrate to the polises or at least shelter themselves. Many fleshers reject this advice, or fail fully to appreciate its urgency quickly enough. Stirred up by a paranoid Static diplomat, many fleshers suspect that Yatima and Inoshiro have come to bring about an involuntary "Introdus," or mass-migration into the polises, involving virus-sized nanomachines disintegrating the human body and recording information as they convert the brain into a memory crystal. The gamma ray burst reaches Earth shortly after the conference, causing a mass extinction. The gleisners and the Coalition of Polises survive the burst, thanks to radiation hardening. Over the next few years, Yatima and other citizens and gleisners attempt to bring any surviving fleshers into the safety of the polises.

The novel title itself refers to a quest undertaken by most of the inhabitants of Carter-Zimmerman ("C-Z"), a polis devoted to physics and understanding the cosmos, along with volunteers from throughout the Coalition of Polises. The Diaspora is a collection of one thousand clones (digital copies) of C-Z polis, deployed in all directions in the hope of gathering as much data as possible in order to revise the long-held classical understanding of Kozuch Theory. The bulk of the novel follows this expedition, rotating back and forth between different cloned instances of the same cast of main characters as different C-Z clones make discoveries along the way, relaying information to one another at first over hundreds of light years, then later between universes.

CharactersEdit

  • Yatima[4] is an Orphan, a being created by the Konishi polis conceptory rather than by a parent or parents. A central character in the novel, ve usually takes the iconic form of an African herdsman in a purple robe. Yatima exhibits a deep love of mathematics and a desire to explore the unknown.
  • Blanca, whose icon is a featureless black silhouette, is another inhabitant of the Konishi polis, and one of the first three people that Yatima meets. Blanca is a great physicist and scape architect, and an acknowledged expert on Kozuch Theory throughout the Coalition of Polises.
  • Inoshiro is another of Yatima's earliest friends, whose icon features metallic, pewter-grey skin. A native of Konishi but a frequenter of Ashton-Laval, a polis of great artistic merit, ve proudly considers verself delinquent. Inoshiro frequently attempts to attract Yatima away from philosophical Konishi and into more aesthetic and avant-garde pursuits. It was Inoshiro who suggested visiting the fleshers of Atlanta in ancient gleisner's bodies.
  • Gabriel is Yatima's third early friend, whose icon is covered in short, golden-brown fur. Gabriel is Blanca's lover and another great physicist. Unlike most polis citizens, Gabriel has chosen for himself to have a specific (though non-functional) gender, a fact which is considered eccentric and perhaps perverted amongst many citizens of the Coalition.
  • Karpal is a gleisner astronomer who lives on the surface of the Moon, and is the first to discover the collapse of Lac G-1. He later leaves his robotic body and gleisner society to transmigrate to Carter-Zimmerman polis, seeking a more profound understanding of physics, unavailable to creatures whose minds are programmed to think of things in terms of their bodies.
  • Orlando Venetti, originally a leader of the Bridger colony of Atlanta; he and his mate Liana Zabini are the first to welcome Inoshiro and Yatima upon their arrival as gleisners. In the Lacerta Event, Liana is killed and Orlando is brought into the polis; he joins the Diaspora, and thanks to his Bridger training he makes the first interactive contact with an alien intelligence.
  • Radiya is Yatima's first mentor in abstract mathematics and exploration of the "Truth Mines," Konishi’s metaphoric representation of the world of mathematical theorems. Vis icon is a fleshless skeleton made of twigs and branches, with a skull carved from a knotted stump.
  • Hermann is an extremely eccentric member of the Diaspora, who often appears as a segmented worm with six flesher-shaped feet attached to elbow-jointed legs, based on the curl-up from the work of M. C. Escher. Hermann is very old, a product of the original 21st century Introdus, and describes verself as vis own great-great-grandson because ve has reinvented vis own personality so many times during vis long life.
  • The Star Puppies are a group of Carter-Zimmerman citizens who elect to stay conscious, in real time, for the duration of their spaceflight in the Diaspora (most others are in a state of suspension). They take the form of space-evolved creatures dwelling in a scape representing the hull of the spacecraft, employing personality outlooks (software analogous to psychoactive drugs) that ensure they feel constant joy in, and at, the universe around them.

The PolisesEdit

Humanity began transferring itself into the polises (the introdus) in the late 21st century UT.

There are many polises, though only a few are mentioned in the novel. The author does not go into any great detail about them, in a physical sense, though they seem to be hardware-based supercomputers of unknown size and computational ability, all of which are probably hidden in safe places. Konishi polis, at least, is buried deep beneath the Siberian tundra.

Each polis has its own unique character, encapsulated in a "charter" which defines its goals, philosophies, and attitudes to other polises, and the external world. Citizens are expected to pay attention to the charter of the polis they are situated in; should they begin to disagree with the charter, they can always migrate to a polis which is more amenable to them.

The most prominent difference between one polis and another, at least in the novel, is in their attitudes toward the physical world. They range from those who wish to experience the real world of normal time and space to the wholly solipsistic who live their entire lives in esoteric, isolated virtuality.

The citizens of Konishi polis seem to be concerned mostly with abstract mathematics and esoteric philosophical pursuits, and are generally uninterested in the physical world. They use visual icons for social purposes, but simulated physical interaction is considered a violation of individual autonomy.

After the Lacerta Event, Yatima emigrates from Konishi to Carter-Zimmerman polis, which rejects the solipsism exemplified by Konishi and embraces the study of the physical universe as of paramount importance. Given the Lacerta Event, which suggests that the universe may be very dangerous in unknown ways, Yatima has begun to share this viewpoint.

Polis time, Delta, and perceptionEdit

The internal dating and time standard used in the polises is known as CST (Coalition Standard Time). It is measured in tau (an elastic value, as it changes with polis hardware improvements) elapsed since the system was adopted on Jan 1, 2065 (UT).

When the novel begins the CST date in the polises is 23 387 025 000 000.

The polises, generally, run roughly eight hundred (subjective) times faster than the outside world, allowing for very rapid development compared to the physical world.

Being software-based, the polis citizens can live life at user-determined speeds, meaning that they can, if they wish, experience many subjective days, weeks, or months of time while a much shorter period of objective "real time" has passed. The opposite is also true - citizens can also choose to "rush", meaning to experience consciousness at a speed slower than the polis hardware can maintain. Hence citizens could experience consciousness at the same speed as a human flesher would, or slower, or even freeze their conscious state for a set time or until a previously determined event occurs. It is suggested that some citizens have opted to experience consciousness so slowly that they are able to witness continental drift and geological erosion.

For a citizen running at full speed, one tau is subjectively equivalent to one second for a flesher.

"Distance," another arbitrary value within the virtual Scapes of the Polises, is measured in Delta, which are not entirely explained. Delta are primarily filters, which may be used or ignored at will, which allow Citizens, Scapes, and other Polis objects to not be involved with one another when they are not related, unless a connexion is specifically made or necessary.

Almost all Polis Citizens, except for those who specifically elect otherwise, experience the world through two sensory modalities: Linear and Gestalt, which are described as distant descendants of hearing and seeing, respectively. In Linear, information is conveyed quantitatively, as a string or strings of information formulated with a language which is hardwired into the mind of almost all Citizens. Citizens may "speak" to one another in Linear by sending streams of data back and forth, from mind to mind, which can be either private conversations carried on between a specific subset of intended participants, or public announcements accessible to all involved in a conversation or otherwise "listening in."

In Gestalt, information is conveyed qualitatively, and data sent or received about anything arrives all at once, and is interpreted by the mind of the Citizen in all its aspects simultaneously, resulting in an experience of immediacy, and a Citizen need not consciously consider the information being sent as in Linear, but Gestalt is rather entirely or almost entirely subconscious. Citizens use Gestalt to create Icons or for themselves, which are "visual" representations within Scapes (which are Gestalt "areas" or "spaces"). Citizens also use Gestalt to convey Tags, which are packages of information being described as like an odour or essence, which are gathered by any other Citizens within several Delta, or who happen to be "reading" for specific Tags. Each Citizen has a unique Tag which identifies them as a particular person, regardless of their other appearances, and Tags may be emitted for other purposes as well, when arbitrary information needs to be conveyed and understood instantly between Citizens. Towards the beginning of the novel, for instance, Yatima learns about an asteroid in the real world by reading its tags subconsciously, which inform ver instinctively about its properties such as mass, velocity, rotation, composition, emission spectra, and other such data discernible to the Coalition's satellite network.

See alsoEdit

Footnotes Edit

  1. The corporation in named in the short story Transition Dreams from the collection Luminous
  2. Disembodied minds are sometimes referred to generally as infomorphs within the genre.
  3. Polis is Greek for city/state.
  4. Yatima is a Swahili word meaning orphan.

ReviewsEdit

ReferencesEdit

  • Egan's 1994 novel, Permutation City, could be seen as being a very loose prequel to Diaspora, as it features early experimentation into the uploading of minds into supercomputers.
  • Orphanogenesis, the first chapter of the novel, is available, for free, at Egan's website HERE
  • A short story, published in Egan's short-story collection Luminous, The Planck Dive, also concerns events in the Diaspora. It is available, for free, from the author's website HERE

Editions Edit

English editions Edit

  • September 1997: Hardback, ISBN 1-85798-438-2 (UK edition), Publisher: Gollancz, 320 pages
  • September 1997: Paperback, ISBN 1-85798-439-0 (UK edition), Publisher: Gollancz
  • 1997: Hardback, Cover of ISBN B000GX6OQU, Publisher: Orion
  • February 1998: Hardback, ISBN 0-06-105281-7 (USA edition), Publisher: Eos
  • July 1998: Paperback, ISBN 0-75280-925-3 (UK edition), Publisher: Gollancz
  • April 1999: Unbound, ISBN 0-606-18687-5 (USA edition), Publisher: Demco Media
  • November 1999: Mass Market Paperback, ISBN 0-06-105798-3 (USA edition), Publisher: Eos

Translations Edit

  • 1999: Boukoumanis Editions, Athens, Translated by Christodoulos Litharis (Greek translation)
  • February 2000: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, Munich, ISBN 3-45316-181-5 (pb), Translated by Bernhard Kempen (German translation)
  • 2003: Mondadori/Urania, Milan, ISSN 1120-5288 / Number 1460 (pb periodical), Translated by Riccardo Valla (Italian translation)
  • 2005: Hayakawa, Tokyo, ISBN 4-15011-531-1 (pb), Translated by Makoto Yamagishi (Japanese translation)cs:Diaspora (román)

it:Diaspora (romanzo)

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