review of Greg Egan’s short story collection Instantiation

Either they moved out into the countryside and became subsistence farmers, or they stayed and fought to regain some kind of agency, using the only weapons that worked now. The idea that every person in the world ought to learn to code had always struck Dan as an infuriating piece of proselytizing, as bizarre as being told that everyone just had to shut up and become Rastafarian. But in the zombie apocalypse, no one ever complained that they needed to learn to sharpen sticks and drive them into rotting brains. It wasn’t a matter of cultural homogeneity. It was a question of knowing how to fuck with your enemy.

That’s a quote from the first story, set in a near-future where AI is pushing more and more people out of the job market. The story’s main conceit manages to be simultaneously a Kafkaesque nightmare and a relatively optimistic vision. Corporations have gotten so good at replacing their workers with automation that they’ve started to destroy their own markets: not enough people have income to buy products with. The companies solve this problem by giving money to the unemployed—in deceptive and manipulative ways tailored to each recipient.

Some of the stories are probably longer than they needed to be, but all of them are pretty good. I come to Egan mostly for trippy post-Singularity adventures, so my favorite part of this collection was the three-story sequence about “composite” digital humans built from public-domain brain scans who are forced by a low-budget game company to fill the role of NPCs. It’s strange to read fiction where the focus shifts suddenly from plot and character drama to a detailed exploration of bizarre geometries, but it’s a kind of strange I enjoy.