Showing all posts tagged: Grace Chan
5 June 2023
Image courtesy of Pete Linforth.
Warning: spoilers ahead. Return to this article once you’ve finished reading the novel.
Every Version of You, published by Affirm Press in 2022, is the debut novel of Melbourne based Australian author Grace Chan. Set in the late twenty-first century, primarily in Melbourne, Chan’s novel is about a young couple, Tao-Yi and her boyfriend Navin, and a momentous decision they need to make, which has life changing consequences.
Climate change has rendered Earth almost uninhabitable. Outdoor activities have become uncomfortable and dangerous. People need to don protective clothing and equipment before leaving the cocoon-like sanctuary of their dwellings. Body suits to block the Sun’s burning rays. Goggles and facemasks to combat dust, and other airborne irritants.
But the creation of a would-be new world, a “hyper-immersive, hyper-consumerist virtual reality” named Gaia, offers humanity an alternative to the world outside. And while this digital, artificial, macrocosm, mimics the old world in virtually every way, it also offers inhabitants a whole lot more.
Accessing Gaia, called logging in, is facilitated by climbing into a small, diving bell like chamber, filled with a gel-like liquid, called a neupod. While people’s bodies lie immersed in the pod’s gel, their minds roam free in Gaia, and they go about their lives, as normal. Except here, their presence takes the form of a digital avatar, one they are able to continually customise.
They go to work and school. They see friends and family. They engage in sporting and recreational activities. People “live” in Gaia just as they do in the real, outside, world. But within its realm, people can do more than live their old lives. They can venture to places they once only dreamed of, and become someone they could never have been otherwise.
Gaia, a promise of eternal life, but at a cost
Like everyone else, Tao-Yi and Navin switch back and forth between Gaia and the outside world, although Navin spends more time in Gaia than Tao-Yi. But one day a technology emerges allowing people to permanently meld with Gaia, through a process called “Uploading”.
In essence, Uploading, also known as mind uploading, allows a person to live forever within Gaia’s seemingly boundless domain. But there is a crucial caveat. Once uploaded, a person cannot return to the old world. Not, at least, as a corporeal entity. Uploading transforms a person into a conscious digital entity, through a procedure that extracts their every thought, memory, and personality.
A person’s no longer needed body is disposed of in manner they choose beforehand, once Uploading is completed. Despite Tao-Yi’s misgivings, Navin was a keen proponent. And not just because he saw himself as an early adaptor. Navin was also afflicted with a chronic illness, one that medicine could not alleviate. Uploading would allow Navin to live disease free.
And there were doubtless others in Navin’s position. Medical science could offer these people no hope, but Uploading, and becoming a digital version of themselves, would completely eliminate their ailments. For some, the decision to Upload was easy to make. They could enjoy full “health”, and also be free of the ravages of climate change. To say nothing of “living” forever.
Although in a minority, there were people — called holdouts — who refused to Upload. They wished to remain in the “meatspace”, a derogatory term given to the old world. Xin-Yi, Tao-Yi’s mother, was among them. And even Tao-Yi — for the benefits Uploading bestowed upon Navin — was far from convinced that permanently merging with Gaia was the right thing to do. And for good reason.
Gaia, a symbol of climate change denial
Tao-Yi knew Gaia was not a solution to climate change, only a means by which to escape it. To her, and other holdouts, Gaia was humanity’s way of signalling defeat in the battle to restore Earth’s environment to the way it once was. But not only that. Gaia, while being heralded as a new beginning for humanity, also potentially spelt the end of the line for humans.
Aside from a small number of holdouts braving life in the near inhospitable real world, all of humanity’s eggs were in the single basket that was Gaia. Its digital inhabitants had condemned themselves to eternal imprisonment on Earth. Gaia also left humanity all the more vulnerable to some sort of planet-wide calamity, such as the asteroid impact that brought about the end of the dinosaurs.
It was be hoped the tech savvy denizens of Gaia would eventually figure out a way to leave Earth, and at least put down roots elsewhere in the solar system. If not beyond. But a global catastrophe was not the only danger facing Gaia. The digital realm also depended on an army of (presumably self-replicating) robots to maintain its infrastructure.
There would be the hope the robots continued to serve, and replace themselves. But what if these maintenance droids infused themselves with an intelligence of their own? And what if they one day turned against their digital masters, and pulled the plug on them?
Some of these concerns — and could they be the basis for a sequel, or even an Every Version of You expanded universe? — are alluded to in the novel, even if they are beside the point. Gaia is a potent symbol of climate change denial, and the unwillingness, by some people, to do anything about it. Gaia might promise eternal life, but that could be an eternity spent regretting sacrificing Earth to climate change.
Gaia, why does the name sound familiar?
In Greek mythology Gaia is the goddess of Earth, and the mother of all life. She is one of the “primordial deities”, the first generation of Greek gods, and the grandmother of Zeus, god of sky and thunder, and later king of the cosmos, and the other Greek gods.
As a name for the digital realm humanity withdraws to, Gaia may also derive from the Gaia hypothesis, which was formulated by late British scientist and futurist James Lovelock in the 1970s. His theory proposes “living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.”
In Every Version of You, humanity has well and truly failed to “maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.” But by creating a new, artificial, domain named Gaia, perhaps the people of the late twenty-first century — up to their eyes in denial — could claim to have succeeded in achieving this goal.
29 May 2023
There’s a lot to like about smaller, independent, book publishers. The first has to be the quality of the stories they’ve been bringing to bookshelves in recent years. This is borne out by the increasing presence of indie published titles in the long and short lists of Australian literary awards such as the Stella, and the Miles Franklin.
The second is the “risk” smaller publishers — many of whom are members of the Small Network Press — will take on a book with a storyline that might be regarded as fringe, something perhaps their mainstream counterparts are reluctant to do.
Nina Culley, writing for Kill Your Darlings, says the publication of titles including Grimmish by Michael Winkler, Every Version of You by Grace Chan, and Dropbear, a collection of poetry by Evelyn Araluen, is signalling a move away from “realist” stories, towards writing more on the experimental and strange side.
Small presses, literary magazines, anthologies and poetry collections have long since encouraged outlandish stories, experimentation and play, and we are now seeing more smaller publishing houses doing the same. Publishers like Spineless Wonders, SubbedIn, UQP, Transit Lounge and Giramondo are revolutionising Australia’s literary output by responding to an expanding readership that craves literary disobedience.
I’m intrigued by what is regarded as “literary disobedience” though (much as I like the term). For instance I finished reading Every Version of You last week, and despite the novel being described as a work of speculative literary fiction, the entire premise really seemed all too plausible. But maybe I need to stop consuming as much science fiction and fantasy as I do.
13 May 2023
Melbourne based Australian author Grace Chan’s debut novel Every Version of You, has been optioned for film. Cognito Entertainment, a new Los Angeles based film production company, whose goal is to bring weird science to life through story, will oversee the book to screen adaptation:
Neuroscientist and Stanford professor Dr. David Eagleman has teamed up with producers Matt Tauber and Adam Fratto to launch Cognito Entertainment, an independent production company centered around science programming and films. The Los Angeles and Palo Alto-based company has already begun working on scripted television series, documentaries and literary adaptation.
I’m part way through reading Every Version of You as I write this, and I can’t say I’m surprised. While great news for Chan, this is also a positive development for Australian writers of science fiction and speculative fiction, who often struggle to find someone to publish their work.
5 March 2023
Finding someone to publish science fiction in Australia is difficult but not wholly impossible. A number of Australian authors report difficulty in having works of anything other than contemporary or literary fiction published locally, forcing them to take their work to overseas publishers.
Under these circumstances it would seem Melbourne based Australian author Grace Chan was fortunate. Her debut novel Every Version of You, published by Affirm Press in July 2022, is categorised as speculative fiction after all. Speculative fiction may not be another name for science fiction per se, but speculative fiction is often considered an umbrella term for a number of non-realist fiction genres, including horror, fantasy, and sci-fi.
Every Version of You is set in the late twenty-first century in a world where inhabitants spend most of their time within what is described as a hyper-immersive, hyper-consumerist virtual reality called Gaia. They live almost every aspect of their lives in this digital realm without ever leaving the house. But wait a minute, doesn’t that describe the way many of us already live? Are we not so immersed by the domain on the screen in the palm of our hands that we don’t even blink sideways at the person standing next to us?
Social media gave rise to socialising online, while the COVID-19 lockdowns of recent years made working from home the norm, deepening our engagement with the virtual dimension.
Gaia then sounds very much like an actual place, rather than the product of a speculative fiction writer’s mind. Might these details have somehow escaped the publisher of Every Version of You, who believed the book to be a work of a genre other than speculative fiction? This is surely a hopeful sign for writers of speculative and science fiction in Australia, as their work often explores contemporary, and relevant matters, through a lens other than that of contemporary or literary fiction.
The prospect of uploading one’s consciousness, in a digital format, to the internet, sometimes called mind uploading, is by no means a fanciful notion either. And in the world Tao-Yi, and her boyfriend Navin inhabit, this is something they find themselves grappling with. Tao-Yi, who has reservations about the Gaia concept in any case, is anything but enthusiastic when a technology that allows people to permanently upload their consciousness completely to Gaia, emerges. Navin, in contrast, is all for the idea.
Tao-Yi is confronted with a choice. Follow her boyfriend into this perpetual digital realm, or, like her mother, remain in the real world, but one ravaged by climate change and poverty. Those who reside in the world Chan has created seem to be damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
Chan, who also works a psychiatrist, is a prolific writer of short fiction, with a keen interest in neuroscience, consciousness, empathy, ethics, and the mind-body relationship. One of her short works, He Leaps for the Stars, He Leaps for the Stars, was shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards, a literary prize celebrating the work of Australian speculative fiction writers.
Every Version of You meanwhile has been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize. Recognition of a work of speculative fiction by a literary award as highly regarded as the Stellar is certainly positive for writers of the genre in Australia.