science fiction and fantasy book reviewsQuarantine by Greg Egan science fiction book reviewsQuarantine by Greg Egan

Greg Egan is an Australian writer of hard science fiction who specializes in mathematics, epistemology, quantum theory, posthumanism, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, etc. When you pick up one of his books, you know you will be getting a fairly dense crash course in some pretty outlandish scientific and mathematical ideas, with the plot and characters coming second.

The cover blurb advertises Quarantine as “A Novel of Quantum Catastrophe,” and the back describes “an impenetrable gray shield that slid into place around the solar system on the night of November 15, 2034” causing riots and chaos. However, the book mainly takes place in Perth and New Hong Kong, which was relocated to Australia after the Chinese took over. So don’t expect too much galaxy-spanning space travel or conventional aliens. This book is about quantum physics, simultaneous ‘eigenstates’ when humans use neural ‘mods’ to ‘smear’ themselves before collapsing back into a single state of existence, erasing those infinite possibilities.

The story centers on private investigator Nick Stavrianos, who is asked by an anonymous client to investigate the disappearance of Linda Andrews, a brain damaged patient at the Hilgemann Institute who, one day, disappeared from her room without a trace. It’s a fairly typical scenario, designed to reveal elements of the plot as his investigation progresses. Surprise, surprise, this is not just a random disappearance, but the tip of a much more elaborate conspiracy by shadowy organizations to exploit the neural ‘mods’ that could blow the lid off our conventional reality quicker than you can say ‘cookie-cutter private-eye story about collapsing wave functions and reality-altering nanotech mods.’

The early part of Quarantine establishes the nanotech-filled world of the 21st century, brimming with technological wonders but also with religious mania and terrorism inspired by the Bubble that surrounds the solar system. It’s not a pleasant world, and technological espionage is commonplace. Once Nick and Linda’s backstories are established, the book delves into its main subject matter, a revolutionary new mod that could allow the user (the ‘observer’ in the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment) to choose from an infinite number of quantum probabilities while ‘smeared’ when the wave function collapses back into a single reality. If this can be controlled, the possibilities are unlimited — pursuing personal profit, improving the lot of society, or perhaps something much more radical.

Nick gets deeply embroiled in the conflicting factions seeking to control this mod, and the mechanism by which his loyalties are controlled is quite fascinating — one of the better ideas in the story. It’s not until things get extremely technical and complicated that we discover the connection between this reality-bending mod and the Bubble that mysteriously appeared at the beginning of the book.

I’ve always been interested in quantum mechanics, Multiple Worlds Theory, nanotech, etc., and all the mind-bending possibilities that these ideas entail. Egan spends enough pages explaining quantum ‘smearing’ and ‘collapsing’ that even a complete layman like myself, who loves hard science fiction ideas but hates differential equations and complex calculations, to understand the basics. As Egan explains in a very illustrative article on his blog (Quantum Mechanics and Quarantine), he chose a very unlikely interpretation of quantum mechanics and wave function collapse in order to make an exciting and imaginative science fiction novel. In general, I think he succeeds at this, though at the expense of in-depth characterization. If that appeals to you, by all means give Quarantine a try. Out of all the possible quantum probabilities, this is probably one of the better iterations.

Notes on the Audible Studios version:

When I discovered that you can get many of Egan’s books in Kindle and Audible versions for the COMBINED price of $4.98, I figured that was just too good to pass up. In particular I snapped up Quarantine, Permutation City, and Diaspora as promising titles. Then I noticed the ratings on Audible were surprisingly low (the low 3s), and discovered that most of the audiobook readers liked the books but pilloried the narrator Adam Epstein for being completely inept — boring, bad accents, painfully slow, mispronouncing words. No wonder its so cheap, I thought. Maybe this was a mistake. But I knew I could at least fix one thing, the overly-slow narration speed, by simply selecting 1.5x speed, my normal pace. Perhaps some listeners aren’t aware of that option.

Long story short, they were right that Adam Epstein is NOT a particularly good narrator, especially his atrocious Australian and Chinese accents and mispronouncing of words like Taoist (he read it as “T” rather than “D”) or ASEAN (he read is as “A-Shawn” instead of “As-ee-an”), which suggests he doesn’t listen to financial news at all. Surprisingly, I thought he soldiered through the technical parts fairly well, though they inevitably sounded like a textbook at times. However, I decided to forgive this since I am getting Greg Egan’s audiobooks for just $1.99 each.

Published in 1992. It causes riots and religions. It has people dancing in the streets and leaping off skyscrapers. And it’s all because of the impenetrable gray shield that slid into place around the solar system on the night of November 15, 2034. Some see the bubble as the revenge of an insane God. Some see it as justice. Some even see it as protection. But one thing is for certain — now there is the universe, and the earth. And never the twain shall meet. Or so it seems. Until a bio-enhanced PI named Nick Stavrianos takes on a job for an anonymous client: find a girl named Laura who disappeared from a mental institution by the most direct possible method — walking through the walls.