Diaspora

Greg Egan

Millennium 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000 http://dannyreviews.com/
Diaspora begins in 2975, when there are three major strands to humanity: fleshers, who retain biological bodies; gleisners, who have moved to humanoid robots; and citizens of the polises, who live as software running on central polis hardware. Within these there are further divisions. Some fleshers ("statics") have tried to stay close to the ancestral form, while others ("exuberants") have used biotechnology to modify themselves, sometimes drastically. Some polises have charters that encourage introversion and activity within simulated worlds; others try to remain in touch with the physical world.

The plot itself is relatively simple. A nearby neutron-star binary collapses, violating the currently understood physics and generating a burst of gamma radiation that threatens the Earth. Two citizens from Konishi polis activate abandoned gleisner robots to try and warn the fleshers of what is to come. Carter-Zimmerman polis subsequently dispatches copies of itself to other stars, seeking an explanation of what happened and some kind of certainty about the future. The protagonists end up chasing a species called the Transmuters (who have left behind them clues such a planet composed solely of deuterium and C-13 and other heavy isotopes).

There is plenty of "hard" science fiction around, but Diaspora makes most of it feel like talc. An explanation of the Gauss-Bonnet theorem and an introduction to gravitational astronomy are just warmups — not only does Egan speculate about 6-dimensional physics and visualisation in 5-space, but he makes a serious attempt to explain the mathematical concepts of "manifold", "embedding", and "fibre bundle"! Some of the physics is invented, but the basic ideas closely reflect real modern theoretical physics. You don't have to be able to follow all of this to appreciate Diaspora, but those without any interest in physics and mathematics are likely to find it rather tedious. (A twelve page glossary and two pages of references are included.)

As a novel Diaspora is limited — though the characters are all recognisably human, none of them ever really comes to life. But the speculations on philosophy of mind are more interesting in many ways than the physics. Polis citizens are created either by copying of a biological brain (using nanoware) or by simulated neuro-embryology. They can directly modify their own motivations (with "outlooks") and perceptual and cognitive abilities, as well as cloning themselves (and, under some circumstances, clones can subsequently merge). Unlike the physics and mathematics, which are necessarily presented in long passages of exposition, the ideas about mind and consciousness emerge more naturally from the story.

May 2000

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- books by Greg Egan
- more science fiction
%T Diaspora
%A Egan, Greg
%I Millennium
%D 1998
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0752809253
%P 376pp