Grace Chan’s first novel opens in Melbourne in the late 2080s. The planet is, to not put too fine a point on it, “spent”. Most people who can afford it spend their mornings climbing into gel-filled pods to log into a fun, more beautiful edition of Earth called Gaia, where advanced coding offers the sensation (or at least, a sensation) 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 the technology arrives to allow full “upload”, it feels like a foregone conclusion. Except for Tao-Yi, it isn’t.
Is her reluctance just nostalgia? What, exactly, is she worried about leaving behind? In digitalising the mind-body problem, Every Version of You transposes it into a literal and very material question: if you could leave your body, would you? In his unsettling 1909 story, The Machine Stops, EM Forster comes at this question from the other side: if you could return to the physical world, would you? In Forster’s story, a woman lives contentedly in her small pod below the earth, washed, dried and fed while she swaps “elevated” ideas with like minds in other pods around the world. All her needs are met by the Machine. Her son’s claustrophobia merely annoys her – she thinks he is a stubborn and backward heretic. He thinks the Machine has robbed humanity of “the sense of space and of the sense of touch”. The story’s very bleak ending is easily read – especially coming from EM “only connect” 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 complexifies and simplifies the equation. For him, uploading is a salvation, a no-brainer: only in virtual reality can he be his authentic self, not held back by the painful betrayals of his body. (Chan’s vision of the future includes a believably infuriating gap between advancements in consumer tech and those in more basic medical or social care.) But Tao-Yi struggles with a nebulous sadness, certain that with the loss of their tactile connection goes something fundamental to their bond. While the novel is told in third person, we inhabit Tao-Yi’s perspective, and her hunger for the physical sensations Gaia can never quite replicate (the taste of homemade mapo tofu, the smell of Navin’s neck, even the hot, toxic air of Melbourne’s increasingly uninhabitable streets). “Distance is irrelevant to intimacy, now,” she reflects after a reunion at a virtual party – yet she, and so we, are unconvinced.
After upload, Navin’s brain expands and speeds up – he becomes a “digital sprite” chasing interests, passions, languages. Tao-Yi sees this limitless metamorphosing as a dissolving of the self, but Navin begs her to consider the risks of “lagging”: ageing, decay, the possibility she’s inherited her mother and grandmother’s depression. Chan, whose day job is in psychiatry, probes the fascinating idea of how well it’s possible to know our “selves” at all, and what we value in their formation. Are friction, trauma and discomfort so integral? Why not wipe them out, become “new humans, directly powered by solar and electricity”?
Tao-Yi, looking back on the 21st century, wonders how much of her mother’s illness “might have been grief about the world”. The elephant in the room, as in so much cli-fi, is capitalism: in Chan’s future, the tech has improved but the system hasn’t. Apple and then Dandelion have been superseded by Neuronetica-Somners, Gaia’s parent company, which caters to the rich. Many are locked out by cost, stranded on an Earth with no more trees. (It’s possible, after reading this book, that you never turn on a tap the same way again.) Those without homes shelter beneath UV-reflective blankets, bodies warped and broken by chronic sunburn and lung disease, ignored by those who’ve left them behind. (“It’s hard to think critically about the things that gratify your basest needs.”) Even people with access to Gaia’s addictive consolations seem to frequently be falling apart in ways their commercial system is utterly inadequate and unwilling to address. Like Mark Fisher, Every Version of You argues that capitalism (more than say, the internet) is the cause of all the problems we keep using it to try to solve.
Chan’s novel is laden with a feeling of precipice and inevitability, a quiet doom. As all her friends upload, Tao-Yi is swamped by the “perpetual homesickness” she’s felt since her teenage move from Malaysia. She cannot see Gaia as a home, and in pulling away from it, she is reaching for something linking her to her roots – but they are also “broken, or only ever half-built”. In a recent essay, critic Cher Tan writes that comparing life on and offline is asking “the wrong question” and falling into the (false) rut of “digital dualism” – because most of contemporary life is simultaneously woven of both.
That’s not what Tao-Yi – or Chan – is doing. Confronting what might one day be left on a ruined, “offline” Earth is a powerful way to refocus the lens on the world we are presently creating, and the politics informing what we build – whether it’s from bricks or code.