The Quantum Garden (2019) is the second installment of Derek Künsken’s QUANTUM EVOLUTION series, following the adventures of conman Belisarius Arjona, one of a few thousands of “Homo quantus” — a bio-engineered species able to deal with floods of data, strange math, and quantum effects. The first book in the series, The Quantum Magician, saw Belisarius gather a crew of misfits in order to help an oppressed “client culture” smuggle a fleet of uniquely advanced spaceships through a wormhole so as to gain their independence from the powerful Congregate. Belisarius, however, was running a con-within-a-con, and while he succeeded in helping the Sub-Saharan Union get their ships and their freedom, he also pulled off a major heist, stealing a portable wormhole/time machine. In The Quantum Garden, Arjona has to deal with the repercussions of both his successes.
The novel opens with a bang, literally, as Belisarius and his former lover/current partner Cassandra witness the destruction of the Homo quantus homebase (The Garret) by the Congregate, who have decided the Homo quantus are too much of a threat. Belisarius is devastated by guilt over how his actions led to a genocide that left him and Cassandra the last of their kind, but quickly realizes he can potentially use his stolen “time gates” to travel back in time to prevent the destruction. Unfortunately, he’ll need the help of the Union, the group he stole the gates from, and who has put a bounty on his head. All while he and Cassandra are being tracked by a “Scarecrow” — a sort of zombie-cyborg-robot used as relentless agents by the Congregate a la Skynet’s terminators.
Without going into details, Belisarius manages to convince the Union, and he and former ally-turned-enemy-turned-enemy/ally Major Ayen Iekanjika travel back in time 40 years, to the Union’s early days in hiding back when they discovered the Time Gates. There, two subplots arise. One involves Belisarius’ attempts to understand an indigenous species of mobile, sentient plants. The other centers on Iekanjika getting embroiled in the Union’s swirling political intrigue, some of which may or may not have led to the murder of her mother, currently pregnant with Iekanjika herself, who is due to born in a few days. A third subplot has Cassandra and foul-mouthed pilot Stills (from book one) dealing with the Scarecrow.
“I need this,” Arjona said. “And need your help again. I have a bigger con.”
Don’t. Fucking. Ask.
“What’s the con?” Stills asked …
“I’m going to hide the Homo Quantus … all of them.”
“Good. I thought this was gonna be tempting or something. I’m already altruized out, saving the Union … Sorry.”
“I need a pilot to fly me through time,” Arjona said …
“For the love of … Goddamn.! Can’t you ever just rob a bank or something?”
There are a few pacing issues here and there, where maybe things slow a little too much or the techno-speak, whether about quantum phenomena or time paradoxes, as noted gets a little heavy. And it’s a smaller, quieter book than its predecessor, though I wouldn’t say that as a criticism; it’s neither better nor worse I’d say, just different in style, tone, and structure. Finally, while The Quantum Garden resolves the current crisis, it also leaves several plot points hanging and opens up a whole new world(s) of potential. I’m curious as to where Künsken takes these characters next.