I Liked It: Zendegi, by Greg Egan
The future of computer games is a topic that I spend more time thinking about that anyone who isn’t a professional computer-game-futurist ought to. A couple of years ago I wrote a terrible short story, the hook of which was that, several decades in the future, the people who chewed glass to master progression raiding in World of Warcraft circa Wrath of the Lich King are all retired and able/willing/eager to spend upwards of 40+ hours a week in incredibly grindy MMO bliss, and the MMOs of the future were all warped to suit that level of commitment, leading to resentment on the part of those young people who still work for a living and don’t have endless free time. If the preceding sentence made no sense to you, well, I did start off by saying it was a terrible short story.
Zendegi is about the computer games of the future, but it’s also about much more. It’s about an Iran after the current government collapses and is replaced by a moderate Islamic republic; an afterword explains it was written a few months before the tumultuous Islamic Spring of 2009, and was therefore already obsolete before it went to press. It’s about advances in artificial intelligence, and what drives them. It’s about a father trying to raise a son (always tough) and a woman trying to convince herself that her life choices haven’t been bad ones (again, always tough).
As the title implies, it’s about Zendegi, a sort-of Steam, sort-of MMO: a VR platform for multiplayer online gaming that doesn’t quite match with the current gaming market but could easily be the Playstation Network of Iran circa fifteen years down the line.
It’s also (very slightly) about making fun of a particular sub-sub-sub-culture online which I’m a big fan of making fun of; this is what drew my attention to the novel in the first place, though the satire of Eliezer Yudkowsky and his followers is only a tiny slice of the overall story.
But mostly it’s about artificial intelligence, what it might look like, and how people react to it both as a philosophical concept and as a technology. There’s a discussion of the classic thought experiment of the AI who’s just barely smart enough to build an incrementally-smarter AI, which in turn builds a slightly better version of itself, and so on until X iterations hence the Earth is controlled by an all-powerful, all-knowing supercomputer. There’s no coverage of Roko’s Basilisk, but that’s probably either because it’s too low-hanging a fruit or because that particular silly thought experiment hadn’t been invented when it was written.
The plodding of technological advance, of course, threatens to make the book obsolete not only in its takedown of Internet memes. Though set mostly in 2028, Zendegi was written six or seven years ago, and published in 2010; inevitably it already already feels a little dated. But it speeds along briskly, explains complex notions of future technology competently, and raises some intriguing questions about the nature of identity. The ebook’s pretty cheap; what’s checking it out going to hurt?
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