In a word: mind-blowing.
Undoubtedly, Egan is the spearhead of the transhumanist movement in SF. Diaspora is a far future story, and although its initial setting is a mere millennium ahead of our time, it is already far more fantastic than other "far future" tales and realistically so. Actually, it was already in the 21st century that humanity branched into three lines of development:
The fleshers have remained true to the biological form. However, apart from a few "statics" who cling dogmatically to the original Homo sapiens, most have modified their genes. Different groups have followed diverging directions, some changing beyond recognition, becoming amphibious or winged; others have abandoned language completeley, etc.
The gleisners are originally human minds who have migrated into humaniform robot bodies. They are colonizing the solar system and are the first to travel to the stars.
A polis is a powerful computer core, sheathed in nanoware, buried at an unimportant place on Earth or elsewhere in the Solar System, populated by uploaded minds living and working in virtual "scapes". There are several polises with different philosophies, loosely cooperating within the Coalition.
Most of the novel is told from the perspective of various polis citizens. Characters routinely clone themselves, consciously reengineer the workings of their mind, or adjust their subjective experience of time. The opening chapter is a single long description of the creation of a new citizen, the detailed development from a randomly mutated mind seed to a self-conscious entity inside the polis' "womb".
This world and the beliefs of its inhabitants are violently shaken by an unexpected cosmic cataclysm in the galactic neighborhood, causing in response the diaspora, the scattering of a thousand copies of Carter-Zimmerman Polis to the adjacent stars, or more generally, the spread of humanity, or its successors, into the cosm. A quest for extraterrestrial life, sentient life in particular, short wormholes, and "what it means to inhabit the universe".
There are alien aliens, a new cosmology, a fictitious theory of everything, and femtotech. Some concepts will be familiar to readers of Permutation City, and Egan again flirts with solipsism. Diaspora is an unabashed work of hard science fiction. Egan sticks to known science (references are given at the end of the book), then extrapolates hard ahead, and knows exactly where to refrain from making up explanations that could only turn nonsensical. He doesn't go easy on the reader. There are extended expository sections on manifolds, particles in 10-dimensional space-time, an organic computer, 5-dimensional geometry, and more. The author has put up some additional illustrations under his homepage. The world of the polises is rigorously plausible in technology and sociology, and worked out in sufficient detail to warrant the glossary at the back. Egan doesn't spew technobabble. Well versed in information technology, biology, and physics, he makes sense throughout.
With regard to the characters, Diaspora is a regression from Distress. They are less developed, rather perfunctory, but of course also harder to relate to, due to their posthuman existence. But then, who reads Egan for his characters? Paradoxically enough though, we are left with a vaguely dissatisfying ending precisely because the protagonists remain too human.
With Diaspora Egan solidly reaffirms his role as a leading force in science fiction.
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