Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn reviews Every Version of You by Grace Chan

Every Version of You

by Grace Chan

ISBN: 9781922806017

Reviewed by Zowie Douglas


In 2022, as AI-generated images began to populate our social media feeds, RnB artist SZA released Ghost in the Machine, in which she sings: ‘Robot got future, I don’t.’ The future and the present are uncomfortably close in Grace Chan’s Every Version of You, where the characters inhabit a world that is startingly familiar to ours. The protagonist, a young woman named Tao-Yi and her partner Navin live in Southbank, Melbourne, where the average outdoor temperature is too hot for prolonged exposure. Other than the climate, places such as Berwick, Townsville and Port Douglas are recognizable. Most people wear ‘Revisions’, AI-augmented interfaces which filter the world and provide useful information, including temperature, radiation, and airborne pollution levels. Characters consume ersatz food like Koffee and use robotic vacuum cleaners. Nursing homes employ droids to deal with old people. All these things build on current trajectories to create a mid-2100 era that feels too close to home, from technology to language use. Internet slang like ‘meatspace’, for example, has been adapted to become vernacular to describe the physical world as opposed to being in Gaia, where most of the characters in Every Version of You spend their time.

The novel plot turns on the decision to ‘upload’, that is whereby characters physically die, giving up their bodies in exchange for eternal ‘life’ in hyperspace. In this way, Every Version of You introduces humanoid technologies similar to other recent works of science fiction, such as Olga Ravn’s The Employees, whose narrator says: ‘It’s my job to get rid of terminated workers and, in a few instances, bodies left over after sickness or re-uploading.’ Instead of being a ship steward, Tao-Yi is a woman overboard. The plot of Every Version of You operates as an Odyssey of sorts: Tao-Yi could upload to Gaia with her lover and ‘exist’ in a state of eternal youth, but she decides not to; instead, she remains on earth, where she is determined to return to her grandmother’s ancestral home. Tao-Yi grew up in Malaysia, where her attachment to earth appears to be rooted in childhood memories and obligations: ‘Honouring Poh-Poh is more important than playing with friends in a make-believe world,’ her mother, Xin-Yi scolds a young Tao-Yi. ‘How would you feel if no one paid respects to your soul after death?’ To which Tao-Yi replies, ‘I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t feel anything.’

In Every Version of You, hyperspace becomes the locus of existence, even though its permanent residents are technically, corporeally dead. Those who visit Gaia experience a host of larger-than-life experiences, while life on Earth is stifling and depressing. Tao-Yi’s partner Nevin, who suffers from chronic kidney disease, is one of the first characters to abandon the crumbling spectre of Melbourne to upload into Gaia. Notably, the first subject to undertake the uploading process is a disabled woman. ‘A car accident at the age of three rendered Marisa quadriplegic. She moved and fed and bathed with integrated assistive technology.’ Here, Marisa’s state of being is similar to the experience of people who access Gaia inside the Neupod, a kind of isolation tank filled with gel. The user needs to shave their head to attach the equipment, rendering them infant-like in appearance. There is an element of body horror to the book’s tactile fleshiness; while the user is physically motionless, the body breaks down in graphic detail. In this way, the world building of Every Version of You is not always the most original, but it builds on influences from The Matrix and other science fiction in a compelling fashion, tempered by detailed character arcs and emotional depth.

In terms of augmented reality and artificial intelligence, the book feels prescient. In August of 2023, a 47-year-old woman was able to speak for the first time in 18 years through an avatar with the assistance of a brain-computer-interface, or BCI. The woman had lost her mobility at age 29 as a result of a brainstem stroke. The BCI is attached via electrodes to an area of her brain and runs a on language model similar to Chat GPT, where her electrical signals are ‘translated’ into words and conveyed by an avatar on screen, simulating speech much more quickly and accurately than earlier speech synthesisers.

In a similar way, language and technology are tightly intertwined in Every Version of You, where everything is bodily, earthy, tactile. Tao-Yi’s Revision is ‘clotted’ with advertisements. Bundles of wires are described as being like ‘spilled guts’. Nevin and Tao-Yi argue ‘with their mouths to each other’s ears, breathing in synchrony.’ Nevin is far less attached than Tao-Yi to the physical world. ‘We kill off our old selves all the time,’ he says to Tao-Yi. This idea of reinvention as self-obliteration is a recurring duality in Every Version of You, alongside the blurred border between information and language, mind and body.

Throughout the novel, Tao-Yi is haunted by her grandmother’s history of depression. ‘Her poh-poh died in 2043, fifty-four years old, alone in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur. A suicide note, torn from the pages of a journal, crumped between the sheets.’ Tao-Yi’s maternal lineage forms a bastion of reality that is returned to over and over, bringing her literally down to earth while her peers are rushing to escape into hyperspace. ‘The earliest Uploaders will be seen as pioneers,’ said Zach, a friend of Tao-Yi and Navin. Here, I was reminded of Shoshana Zuboff’s nonfiction book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, in which Zuboff likens the advance of Big Data as a kind of digital dispossession, harvesting private citizens’ information to enrich tech empires while controlling their access to the online world. But those who upload see themselves as explorers of a new frontier, even as their memories are being absorbed into servers at a high financial and physical cost.

Gaia might provide an escape from mortality, but it’s no panacea. As Tao-Yi says, ‘We built the same spaces and borders, the same sort of bodies, and set everything ticking to the same flow of time.’ To this her friend Zach replies, ‘We stick to the boring utopias.’ I was reminded of Steve Toltz’s novel Here Goes Nothing, where heaven turns out to be a bureaucratic world of austerity, full of the same inconveniences and absurdity of earthly life.

In Gaia, the line between commerce and life remains nebulous, creating an anxiety between what is ‘real’ and what is artificially manufactured: ‘Her tummy grumbles. Is the system telling her that her actual tummy is grumbling, or has the Neupod tracked her blood sugars dropping and triggered an artificial signal? Or has the cafeteria paid for hunger triggers?’ Marketing imbues the world in ‘comm’ speak, and most human art including music is widely designed by algorithm. The characters inhabit a world where mathematical order rules, but this tends to recreate inequalities rather than level them out. For instance, bots abound in poorer, outdated districts: ‘Some have been bought by earnest shopkeepers from developing countries, taking advantage of the cheaper real estate to find a way into Gaia.’

In any case, for Tao-Yi and those few who remain on earth, their commitment runs through the knowledge that they are the outliers in a world saturated by artificial intelligence, a kind of hanger-on to a sinking ship as the earth’s regulatory systems break down. They are the ghost in the machine, even as the avatars who flit between servers lose their bodily forms.


ZOWIE DOUGLAS-KINGHORN lives in Tasmania. Her work has appeared recently in Overland, Island, Meanjin, The Age and others, and her essays and short stories have been awarded the Scribe Nonfiction Prize and the Ultimo Prize for Young Writers. She is the previous editor of Voiceworks.