This was a pretty good science fiction novel about virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and political reforms, made more interesting by being set in a modernized near-future Iran. It's also a fairly hopeful novel, rather than the more dark and gritty scenarios typical of its cyberpunk forebears. The main characters are an Australian journalist who is in Iran to witness the collapse of the old regime and the shaky birth of democracy there, and an Iranian expat neurobiologist who moves back to Iran with her mother after the ayatollahs fall from power. The neurobiologist is working on neural mapping of the human brain, which she ends up applying mostly to create more lifelike NPCs for online virtual reality games, but as her research leads her closer and closer to something approaching true artificial intelligence, it raises disturbing questions about when a software program becomes "human" enough to be concerned about its rights.
Meanwhile, the journalist, who stayed in Iran because he married an Iranian woman, is now a single father raising their son when he learns that he has terminal cancer. Concerned with who will raise his son after he is gone, he turns to the neurobiologist (a distance relative of his son's mother) and asks her to create, in essence, a virtual simulacrum of himself. He understands that the technology will not actually create a true replacement for him, nor will his son believe that this online avatar is truly a digitized version of his father, but he hopes that it will at least be able to provide some guidance for his son and impart some of his sensibilities.
The story is full of interesting sci-fi concepts that are not too outlandish, a lot of human interest, and a setting that's a little different from most near-future cyber-stories. However, I can really only give Zendegi
3.5 stars because while it's well-written and carefully thought out, it didn't really hook me and at times I felt like it was just plodding along with descriptions of how neural mapping works and the introspections of a dying man and a morally compromised researcher. There isn't a lot of action in this book and the plot is no more exciting or world-changing than what I have described. So don't read this expecting any kind of sci-fi adventure or grand themes, but there is enough to make you think that if the premise sounds interesting to you, it is worth a read.