Every Version of You review by Grace Chan – would you like to live in the metaverse? | Australian books
gThe first Chan race novel opens in Melbourne in the late 2080s. The planet is, to put it mildly, “spent”. Most people who can afford it spend their mornings climbing into gel-filled pods to tune into a fun, prettier edition of Earth called Gaia, where advanced coding offers the feeling (or at least, a feeling ) of taste, smell and even touch. . The book’s central quartet, Tao-Yi and her boyfriend Navin, and their friends Zach and Evelyn, live so much of their lives there that when technology arrives to allow full “downloading”, it seems like a foregone conclusion. Except for Tao-Yi, that’s not the case.
Is his reluctance just nostalgia? What exactly is she afraid to leave behind? By digitizing the mind-body problem, Every Version of You translates it into a literal and very material question: If you could leave your body, would you? In his disturbing 1909 story, The machine stopsEM Forster comes to this question from the other side: if you could return to the physical world, would you? In Forster’s story, a the woman lives contentedly in her little pod under the earth, washed, dried, and nurtured while she exchanges “high” ideas with like-minded people in other pods around the world. All his needs are met by the Machine. Her son’s claustrophobia only annoys her – she thinks he’s a stubborn, backward heretic. He believes the Machine has robbed humanity of “the sense of space and the sense of touch”. The very dark ending to the story is easy to read – especially coming from “only connect” EM Forster – as tech-phobic. A century and a bit later, Chan’s relationship to cyberspace is understandably more ambiguous.
Navin has a debilitating health condition, which both complicates and simplifies the equation. For him, the download is a salvation, an evidence: it is only in virtual reality that he can be his authentic self, unrestrained by the painful betrayals of his body. (Chan’s vision of the future includes an incredibly maddening gap between advances in consumer technology and those in more basic medical or social care.) But Tao-Yi struggles with a nebulous sadness, certain only with the loss of their tactile connection, something fundamental to their bond. While the novel is told in the third person, we inhabit Tao-Yi’s point of view, and her hunger for physical sensations that Gaia can never quite replicate (the taste of homemade mapo tofu, the smell Navin’s neck, even the hot, toxic air of Melbourne’s increasingly uninhabitable streets). “Distance has nothing to do with intimacy anymore,” she told herself after a meeting at a virtual party – yet she, and therefore we, are unconvinced.
After downloading, Navin’s brain expands and accelerates – he becomes a “digital sprite” in search of interests, passions, languages. Tao-Yi sees this limitless metamorphosis as a dissolution of the self, but Navin begs her to consider the risks of “lag”: aging, decadence, the possibility that she has inherited her mother’s and grandmother’s depression. Chan, whose day-to-day work is in psychiatry, explores the fascinating idea of how much it is possible to know ourselves, and what we value in their training. Are friction, trauma and discomfort part and parcel? Why not annihilate them, become “new humans, directly powered by solar and electricity”?
Tao-Yi, thinking back to the 21st century, wonders how much her mother’s illness “could have been a heartache to the world.” The elephant in the room, as in so many cli-fis, is capitalism: in Chan’s future, the technology has improved but the system has not. Apple and then Dandelion were replaced by Neuronetica-Somners, Gaia’s parent company, which caters to the wealthy. Many are cost-locked, stuck on an Earth with no more trees. (It’s possible, after reading this book, that you’ll never turn on a faucet the same way again.) Those without homes shelter under UV-reflecting blankets, deformed bodies and broken by chronic sunburn and lung disease, ignored by those who left behind. (“It’s hard to think critically about the things that satisfy your most basic needs.”) Even people with access to Gaia’s addictive consolations often seem to break down in ways that their business system is utterly inadequate and little willing to solve. Like Mark Fisher, Every Version of You argues that capitalism (more so than the internet) is the cause of all the problems we keep using it to try to solve.
Chan’s novel is charged with a sense of precipice and inevitability, of silent fate. As all of her friends download, Tao-Yi is overwhelmed by the “perpetual homesickness” she’s felt since she was a teenager from Malaysia. She cannot see Gaia as a home, and as she walks away from it, she searches for something that connects her to her roots – but they too are “broken, or only half built”. In a recent test, review Cher Tan writes that comparing online and offline life is asking “the wrong question” and falling into the (wrong) rut of “digital dualism– because most of contemporary life is simultaneously woven from both.
That’s not what Tao-Yi – or Chan – does. Confronting what may one day remain on a crumbling, “offline” Earth is a powerful way to refocus the lens on the world we are now creating and the politics that underpins what we are building – whether at from bricks or code.