Grace Chan’s first novel begins in Melbourne in the late 2080s. The planet is, to put it bluntly, “spent.” Most people who can afford it spend their mornings cramming into gel-filled pods to log into a fun, more beautiful edition of Earth called Gaia, where advanced coding makes the feel (or at least the feel) of taste, smell and even touch offers . The book’s central quartet, Tao-Yi and her boyfriend Navin, as well as her friends Zach and Evelyn, spend so much of their lives there that when the technology arrives to allow for a full “upload,” it feels like a foregone conclusion . Apart from Tao-Yi, it’s not.
Is their reluctance just nostalgia? What exactly is she afraid to leave behind? By digitizing the mind-body issue, Every Version of You transposes it into a literal and very material question: If you could leave your body, would you? In his disturbing story from 1909 “The machine stands still”, EM Forster answers this question from the other side: If you could return to the physical world, would you? In Forster’s story a Woman lives happily in her little pod underground, washed, dried and fed while sharing ‘sublime’ ideas with like-minded people in other pods around the world. All their needs are met by the machine. Her son’s claustrophobia only annoys her – she considers him a stubborn and backward heretic. He believes the machine has robbed mankind of “the sense of space and the sense of touch”. The very bleak end of the story can easily be read as a phobia of technology, especially coming from EM “only connect” Forster. A century and a little 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, uploading is a salvation, a piece of cake: only in virtual reality can he be his authentic self, not held back by the painful betrayal of his body. (Chan’s vision of the future involves a believably exasperating chasm between advances in consumer technology 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 comes something fundamental to their bond. As the novel is told in the third person, we inhabit Tao-Yi’s perspective and her hunger for the bodily sensations Gaia can never quite replicate (the taste of homemade mapo tofu, the smell of Navin’s throat, even the hot, poisonous one air from Melbourne’s increasingly uninhabitable streets). “Distance is now irrelevant to intimacy,” she muses after a reunion at a virtual party — but she and we aren’t convinced.
Once uploaded, Navin’s brain expands and accelerates – he becomes a “digital leprechaun” chasing interests, passions and languages. Tao-Yi sees this limitless metamorphosis as self-dissolution, but Navin asks her to consider the risks of “getting stuck”: aging, decay, the possibility that she inherited her mother’s and grandmother’s depression. Chan, who works full-time in psychiatry, explores the intriguing idea of how well it is possible to know our “selves” and what we value in their education. Are friction, trauma and discomfort so integral? why Not wipe them out, “become new humans powered directly by solar energy and electricity”?
Tao-Yi, looking back to the 21st century, wonders how much of her mother’s illness “could have been heartache for the world.” The elephant in the room, as in so much cli-fi, is capitalism: in Chan’s future, the technology has improved, but the system hasn’t. Apple and then Dandelion were succeeded by Neuronetica-Somners, Gaia’s parent company, which caters to the wealthy. Many are locked out to save money and are stranded on a treeless earth. (It’s possible that after reading this book, you’ll never turn on a faucet the same way again.) Those homeless seek shelter under UV-reflective blankets, bodies twisted and broken from chronic sunburn and lung disease , ignored by those who have gone behind them. (“It’s hard to think critically about the things that satisfy your lowest needs.”) Even those with access to Gaia’s addictive consolations often seem to fall apart in ways that their trading system is grossly inadequate and unwilling to address. Like Mark Fisher, Every Version of You argues that capitalism (rather than say the internet) is at the root of all the problems we keep using to try to solve.
Chan’s novel is laden with a sense of the abyss and inevitability, of a silent doom. As all her friends upload, Tao-Yi is overcome with the “constant homesickness” she’s felt since moving from Malaysia as a teenager. She can’t see Gaia as home, and in breaking away from it, she’s reaching for something that connects her to her roots – but they’re also “broken or always half-built.” In a recent essay, critic Cher Tan writes that comparing life online and offline asks “the wrong question” and falls down the (wrong) lane of “digital dualism” – because most of contemporary life is woven out of both at the same time is.
That’s not what Tao-Yi – or Chan – does. Confronting what might one day be left on a devastated, “offline” Earth is a powerful way to refocus the lens on the world we are creating and the politics that are influencing how we build it from building blocks or code.