by Greg Egan



Nasim was about to slip on her headphones when a mischievous impulse took hold of her. She pulled the headphone plug out of its jack, re-routing the computer’s audio to its speakers. Then she fired up the software syrinx and ran the latest simulation of the finch brain’s vocalisation pathways.

The infantile babbling of her early trials had slowly been giving way to a more ordered song, but this time hairs rose on the back of her neck. The distinctive rhythms of an adult bird’s call — the whole style, the whole structure — were finally present.

With the song still playing, she checked the simulation’s virtual EEG. The waveforms were not an exact match to any of the biological recordings on file, but the statistics all fell within the population ranges. If she’d handed the traces to a neurobiologist, they would not have been able to pick the artificial one from the real.

Mike stepped away from his bench and looked around, annoyed. “Who took the bird out of the animal house?” he demanded.

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In 2012, journalist Martin Seymour travels to Iran to cover the parliamentary elections. With most would-be candidates disqualified this turns out to be the expected non-event, but shortly afterwards a compromising image of a government official captured on a mobile phone triggers a political avalanche.

Nasim Golestani is a young Iranian scientist, living in exile in the United States after the execution of her dissident father. She is hoping to work on the Human Connectome Project — which aims to construct a detailed map of the wiring of the human brain — but when government funding for the project is cancelled and a chance comes to return to her homeland, she chooses to head back to Iran.

Fifteen years later, Martin is living in Iran with his wife and young son, while Nasim is in charge of the virtual world known as Zendegi, which is used by millions of people for entertainment and business. When Zendegi comes under threat from powerful competitors, Nasim draws on her old skills, and data from the now-completed Human Connectome Project, to embark on a program to create more life-like virtual characters, giving the company an unbeatable edge.

As controversy grows over the nature and rights of these software characters, tragedy strikes Martin’s family. Martin turns to Nasim, seeking a solution that no one else can offer ... but Zendegi is about to become a battlefield.

Publication history

Information and illustrations

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Zendegi / created Sunday, 22 February 2009 / revised Tuesday, 2 March 2010
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