Have you ever loved a novel so much that you wanted to get every word of it tattooed on your body?
Allow me to introduce Greg Egan’s Diaspora.
This is speculative fiction at its absolute finest, in my opinion: the type that’s grounded in what seems scientifically plausible to feeble yet physics-loving minds such as my own, while also doing what I have yet to see a pre-1990’s sci-fi story do, which is to recognize that not only the medium, but the nature of human interaction, can change.
(This is ’98, so it’s close, but no dice.)
The novel starts about 800 years into our future, with a large portion of humanity having voluntarily given up their physical bodies in order to live as sentient software programs inside servers buried deep under terrestrial ground. Each different server is called a polis, named after, presumably, the original creators. We’re introduced to Konishi Polis and Carter-Zimmerman Polis, and it’s implied that there are more.
Our hero, Yatima, is a Konishi polis “orphan”—a parentless, genderless being created from what could be called a glitch in the software that makes up reality within the polis. Essentially, Yatima’s birth was an immaculate conception in programming terms. Egan never truly leans toward a Messianic interpretation for the character, though I suppose that reading would be there, if you wanted it to be.
An aside, here: Yatima is far from the only genderless character. In fact, the majority of the characters use the pronouns ve/ver/vis, and at no point is the reader assaulted with explicit reasoning for this (though there’s plenty of implicit reasoning.) It feels natural, and I love it, and it’s great.
The remainder of humanity has split off into sects of “fleshers” – a fairly self-explanatory term. Naturally there are extremes within the fleshers: those who opt for a ton of genetic modifications and augmentations to make them essentially superhuman, and those who reject these opportunities—while paradoxically using them—to regress back to a more primitive state.
In the grand scheme of the novel, the fleshers don’t really matter. They are wiped out fairly early in the story by an unexpected cosmic event, something that shouldn’t have been possible according to the laws of physics as they are understood in the novel’s future (the Theory of Relativity has been replaced by Kozuch theory, which without giving too much away is a once again, entirely-too-plausible-sounding explanation for some of the weirdness that physics as we know it can’t definitively explain.)
The polises, buried deep under the Earth and backed up on other galactic worlds, survive the event. The remainder of the novel is focused on the Diaspora, the journey of the citizens of the Carter-Zimmerman polis (including Yatima) away from earth and into uncharted territories of the universe, across several more millennia and shifts into areas where our understanding of time no longer holds up.
This book really excels at telling a compelling story of massive, exponential progress in technology and social design, while remaining mostly aware of the bits of human nature that can and do tend to confound such progress. The scope of the story is vaster than that of any novel in my recent memory, yet Egan grounds it well by filtering through the experiences of a small, tight group of characters.
The polises are predictably hyper-advanced and allow their citizens to think and act hundreds of times faster than humans in the “real” world, yet polis citizens still fall victim to the type of overthinking and emotional blindness that frequently plagues today’s interactions.
In Konishi polis, autonomy is valued above all else, leading to a localized reality in which citizens are unable to touch each other, as even the slightest sensory intervention by another being is considered a loss of autonomy for the one being touched. Naturally, sexuality and romantic love have fallen deeply out of fashion and are largely considered outdated and off-putting, a point that I consider a refreshing turn away from the tropes of 60’s and 70’s sci-fi in which everyone is banging hot space babes with the help of off-world alcohol and massive leaps in birth control science.
Early in the book, attempts at saving what remains of the flesher population are mostly thwarted by the fleshers themselves fearing the unknown, refusing to accept the severity of the threat, and misconstruing the polis citizens’ invitations as some sort of invasion plot. Fairly topical issues.
In Carter-Zimmerman the focus is heavier on artistic pursuit and sensory experience, making it fitting that it should be the polis that creates thousands of cloned copies of its citizens and sends them off to distant planets. Which is where the story gets cool. Egan’s descriptions of life, and “life” on other planets are incredible, especially his descriptions of life that exists in more than four dimensions.
Technological advancement isn’t demonstrated with floating cities or Dyson spheres or FTL drives, but rather with the ability to physically change and manipulate the atoms in a planet’s atmosphere – to leave decipherable messages in the form of isotopes, for example. There’s the underlying idea that sufficient advancement would lead to technologies that are increasingly unobtrusive, difficult to detect, a contrast to the constant race to build the biggest, the tallest, the strongest.
Eventually, the pursuit of an ultra-advanced non-human civilization, following clues that have been left throughout the universe, leads the citizens of C-Z out of Earth’s universe, into exponential higher dimensions and physical descriptions that are dizzyingly difficult to picture.
The end of the novel is almost disappointing, if only because by that point I half expected that Egan would be revealing some sort of undiscovered, unifying universal truth. In reality though, the story reaches its logical conclusion when it becomes clear that there isn’t any point in continuing. The Diaspora discovers multitudes, but in the end what it truly reveals is the ambivalence of the universe at large, the sort of optimistic pointlessness of attempts to map or fully understand the extent of the universe, to even know what reality is.