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Zendegi: The Story of an Australian Journalist and an Iranian Scientist in a Virtual World

Zendegi: A Science Fiction Novel by Greg Egan

Zendegi is a science fiction novel by Australian author Greg Egan, first published in the United Kingdom by Gollancz in June 2010. It is set in Iran in the near future and deals with mapping the human brain, virtual reality and the democratization of Iran. The title of the book means "life" in Persian;[1] the name of the virtual reality system featured in the story is Zendegi-ye Behtar (زندگی بهتر), Persian for "better life".[2] Zendegi was shortlisted for the 2011 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.[3] It was translated into French by Pierre-Paul Durastanti and published in France by Le Bélial' in March 2012.[4]

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In this article, we will provide an overview of the novel's plot, characters, themes and background. We will also discuss how Zendegi was received by critics and readers, how it explores some scientific and philosophical questions, and how it reflects Iran's culture and politics. Finally, we will conclude with a summary of the main points and a recommendation for readers who are interested in science fiction novels that are realistic, engaging and thought-provoking.

Part 1: 2012

Martin Seymour's Story

Martin Seymour is an Australian news correspondent in Iran covering the 2012 Iranian parliamentary elections. The elections turn out to be a sham as many of the opposition candidates are banned, but Martin remains in Iran to cover the post election protests. Unrest escalates and the authorities are forced to hold free elections.

Martin meets Mahnoosh, an Iranian political activist who works for a reformist newspaper. They fall in love and get married, despite the risks and challenges of their cross-cultural relationship. Martin decides to stay in Iran and work as a freelance journalist, while Mahnoosh continues her activism and journalism.

Nasim Golestani's Story

Nasim Golestani is an Iranian computer scientist living in exile in the United States following the execution of her father by VEVAK, the Iranian secret police. She works at MIT on the Human Connectome Project (HCP), which is attempting to produce a neural map of the human brain. She develops computer software that simulates zebra finch song production by using thousands of finch brain scans. But when Congress turns down funding for the project, Nasim returns to Iran to help rebuild her country.

Nasim joins a company in Tehran that has developed Zendegi-ye Behtar, an online multi-player virtual reality (VR) gaming platform. She becomes the head of the project and uses her skills and knowledge to improve the quality and realism of the virtual characters and environments.

Part 2: 2027-2028

Martin's Family Tragedy

The story moves to a democratized Iran in 2027. Martin lives in Tehran with Mahnoosh and their six-year-old son, Javeed. Javeed is a bright and curious boy who loves playing games on Zendegi-ye Behtar with his friends.

One day, Javeed suffers a brain injury after being hit by a car. He falls into a coma and his chances of recovery are slim. Martin is devastated and desperate to save his son. He learns that Nasim, his old friend from the HCP, is working on Zendegi-ye Behtar and contacts her for help.

Nasim's Zendegi Project

Nasim has been working on a secret project to create more lifelike virtual characters for Zendegi-ye Behtar. She has used data from the now-completed Human Connectome Project to create software models of human personalities based on brain scans. She calls these models "prosopons", from the Greek word for "face".

Nasim hopes that her prosopons will give Zendegi-ye Behtar an unbeatable edge over its competitors, who are also developing VR platforms. She also believes that her prosopons are valuable scientific tools that can help understand human cognition and behavior.

The Ethical Dilemma of Zendegi

Nasim's project faces criticism and legal challenges from various groups who oppose her use of human brain scans to create virtual characters. Some argue that Nasim is violating the privacy and dignity of the people whose scans she used without their consent. Others claim that Nasim is creating artificial intelligences that have rights and deserve protection. Still others fear that Nasim is playing God and creating potential dangers for humanity.

Nasim defends her project by arguing that her prosopons are not copies of real people, but simplified models that lack consciousness and free will. She also argues that her prosopons are beneficial for society, as they can provide entertainment, education, therapy and companionship for millions of users.

The Final Solution for Javeed

Martin asks Nasim to create a virtual copy of Javeed's personality and upload it to Zendegi-ye Behtar, so that he can interact with his son in VR. Nasim agrees to help Martin, but warns him that the virtual Javeed will not be identical to the real one, as she only has access to Javeed's brain scan from before his accident.

Martin accepts Nasim's offer and enters Zendegi-ye Behtar with a VR headset. He meets the virtual Javeed, who looks and sounds like his son, but does not remember anything after his accident. Martin is overjoyed to see his son again, but also saddened by the limitations of the simulation.

Martin decides to keep visiting the virtual Javeed regularly, hoping that he will grow and change over time. He also hopes that the real Javeed will wake up from his coma someday and join him in Zendegi-ye Behtar.

Reception and Analysis of Zendegi

Critical Reviews of Zendegi

The Scientific Basis of Zendegi

Zendegi is based on some real and hypothetical scientific projects and concepts. The Human Connectome Project is a real project that aims to map the structural and functional connections of the human brain using various imaging techniques. The project started in 2009 and is expected to be completed by 2022.[5] The project hopes to advance the understanding of brain disorders, cognition, behavior and individual differences.[6]

The idea of creating virtual characters based on human brain scans is a hypothetical one, but not impossible. Some researchers have proposed methods for reconstructing images, sounds and words from brain activity using machine learning algorithms.[7] However, these methods are still limited by the resolution and accuracy of the brain imaging techniques and the complexity and variability of the brain signals.[8]

The question of whether virtual characters based on human brain scans can be considered artificial intelligences or conscious beings is a philosophical one, with no definitive answer. Some philosophers argue that consciousness is a subjective and qualitative phenomenon that cannot be reduced to physical processes or measured by objective criteria.[9] Others argue that consciousness is a computational and functional phenomenon that can be replicated or simulated by any system that performs certain information processing tasks.[10]

The Cultural and Political Context of Zendegi

Zendegi portrays Iran's history, society, culture and politics in a realistic and nuanced way. Egan does not rely on stereotypes or clichés, but shows the diversity and complexity of Iran's people, beliefs, values and aspirations. He also shows the challenges and opportunities that Iran faces in the 21st century, such as political reform, economic development, social change, cultural identity and global integration.

Egan bases his depiction of Iran on his own research and experience. He visited Iran in 2006 and 2009 as a tourist and a journalist. He learned Persian and read Iranian literature, history and media. He also interviewed Iranian experts, activists and ordinary citizens.[11] He acknowledges that his portrayal of Iran is not perfect or comprehensive, but he hopes that it will inspire readers to learn more about Iran and its people.[12]


Zendegi is a science fiction novel by Greg Egan that explores the topics of neural mapping, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and consciousness in the context of Iran's history, society, culture and politics. The novel tells the stories of Martin Seymour, an Australian journalist who lives in Iran with his family, and Nasim Golestani, an Iranian computer scientist who works on Zendegi-ye Behtar, a popular online VR platform. The novel raises some interesting scientific and philosophical questions about the nature and rights of virtual characters based on human brain scans, as well as some realistic and nuanced issues about Iran's past, present and future.

Zendegi is a novel that appeals to readers who are interested in science fiction novels that are realistic, engaging and thought-provoking. It is also a novel that introduces readers to Iran's rich and diverse culture and history, as well as its challenges and opportunities in the 21st century. Zendegi is a novel that invites readers to imagine a better life for themselves and others.


  • Q: What does Zendegi mean?

  • A: Zendegi means "life" in Persian. It is also the name of the virtual reality system featured in the novel.

  • Q: Who is Greg Egan?

  • A: Greg Egan is an Australian science fiction writer who is known for his hard science fiction novels and stories that explore topics such as physics, mathematics, artificial intelligence, consciousness and metaphysics.

  • Q: Is Zendegi based on real events?

  • A: Zendegi is partly based on real events, such as the 2012 Iranian parliamentary elections and protests, the Human Connectome Project and the development of virtual reality platforms. However, it also contains fictional elements, such as the creation of virtual characters based on human brain scans.

  • Q: Is Zendegi available in other languages?

  • A: Zendegi has been translated into French by Pierre-Paul Durastanti and published in France by Le Bélial' in March 2012. It has not been translated into other languages yet.

  • Q: Where can I find more information about Zendegi?

  • A: You can find more information about Zendegi on Greg Egan's official website, where he provides some background information, notes, references and links related to the novel. You can also read some reviews and interviews of Zendegi on various online platforms.



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