Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
When I began reading Zendegi, with its depiction of revolution in Iran, the news was full of images of the uprising in Egypt and those that followed it in other countries. In this context, Egan’s depiction of a (future) revolution was particularly sensitive and highlighted the timeliness of both the themes (as well as the action) of this novel.
Zendegi opens as Martin Seymour, a journalist, leaves Australia for a posting in Iran. He is to cover the 2012 parliamentary elections, but soon finds himself covering a political uprising. In the course of his coverage, he meets Mahnoosh, with whom he will later settle in Iran.
Nasim Golestani is an Iranian scientist living in exile in the USA after the execution of her dissident father. She has ambitions to change the world with her work in mapping the wiring of the human brain. She watches the uprising with delight, and decides to return to Iran to help her country find its footing again. This is not a good decision for her. Fifteen years later she watches enviously as her former colleagues begin to see great success. Meanwhile, she is managing and programming Zendegi, a virtual world used for entertainment and business. Zendegi is losing ground to competitors, and Nasim is beginning to wonder just what she’s achieved with her life.
And then a tragedy brings Nasim and Martin together. Nasim sees a chance to change the world after all – perhaps; and Martin sees a chance to preserve his son’s world. Each of them is facing the biggest challenge they’ve ever faced, and perhaps they can help each other succeed.
One of the best things about this plot is this: from pretty early on you can take a guess at what Nasim and Martin will try to achieve in the second part of the novel. Most readers will be pretty much spot on; it’s not very surprising. What is surprising is the outcome. Egan takes the novel in an unexpected direction, and provides a resolution which is unexpected, but completely convincing and indeed pretty realistic in scientific terms. It is also deeply satisfying on a human level.
In the early part of the novel Egan writes with particular sympathy for the protestors; he doesn’t dwell overmuch on the crimes of the regime in power, instead focusing on the hopes and dreams of those who want a freer society. Not that all of the protestors are presented as saints, either. This is a timely novel, and the low key insight into the uprising was welcome. It underlines that while this kind of uprising takes courage, and sometimes has moments of drama, it also has some long boring periods where protestors essentially have to stick by their principles and plough on.
I’m not going to pretend that I know a lot about the science in the novel. However, to my eye it seemed credible and consistent with current science. It is also very palatable for those with limited scientific knowledge – the explanations are clear and not so lengthy that you start to feel like you’re reading a textbook. The constant compromises and jockeying for funding are also, unfortunately, pretty consistent with the real world.
So Egan has developed a world which is realistic; the novel is set only slightly in the future, and the world seems entirely credible. We could get there from here, and quite possibly in the timeframe the novel presents. Most readers will be able to accept the world, and in fact unless you’re thinking about it, the world building is almost invisible as it seems such a reasonable outcome of the world today. This strong background helps to draw you into a story where the science is ahead of where we are today.
Few science fiction novels work well without strong characters. They can be interesting intellectual exercises, but to really work well they need strong, realistic, empathetic characters. And Egan has provided those. Martin and Nasim are undoubtedly the strongest characters, and their perspectives are the most important to us. Most readers will ache for Nasim and Martin – their dilemmas are very different, as are their heartaches, but most people are going to understand both of them. Nasim’s disappointments – in her career, in her personal life, in her own decisions – are something that a lot of people will empathise with. Martin’s dilemmas are perhaps sharper and very emotional, and again will evoke strong feelings of sympathy in many readers.
Although those two are of critical importance, Egan makes all of his characters come to life. It does not matter that many are from a different culture (Iranian) than Martin – they are real people and Egan concentrates on universal human characteristics rather than on spurious “national” characteristics. These characters will be recognisable and vivid to readers.