Itty Bitty Book Review: Quarantine by Greg Egan (spoilers ahead)

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Image from the usual, goodreads.com

I tried to read two books before Quarantine and had to put them both down. One because it was labelled as ‘hard science fiction’ but was actually ‘slavefic barely removed from the fan fiction universe with the tiniest hint of science fiction’. It featured a drug that made people acquiescent and I wanted to know more about the development of it and what made the drug necessary in the world. Instead the book revolved around the romance of two people, one who bought the other. Yeah, bought. Not a good concept in today’s social climate.

The other book was one I’d been looking forward to because I enjoyed the author’s first book. But it featured a pandemic. While the subject wasn’t a problem for me, I couldn’t get past how the characters continued shaking hands. I mean, the book was written before covid entered our lives, and the handshaking is a minor point, but it bugged me enough to close the book.

So when I was notified that the library had Quarantine ready for me, I jumped on it. I’d put it on hold after stumbling over recommendation after recommendation to read it, so I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Plus, it features quantum physics which is a topic I’ve been looking to read.

There are a lot of complex ideas in the book, complex enough for me to have a hard time grasping them. The author presented the information well, I just think my brain filled up too quickly and felt stuffed early on. Nevertheless, I persevered.

To Start: The starting concept of the book is a near-future detective hired to solve a locked room mystery. By the middle, the story evolves into dealing with collapsing the quantum wave into one single reality. The learning curve felt steep but manageable.

The book was written in 1992, so before the Internet. This is usually a big red flag for me because technology has changed so much since then and become integral to daily lives. Most fiction doesn’t represent the near future well as it’s remarkably hard to predict. This one though, this one did a good job on showing what life would be like with mods installed in the brain. Nowadays that mod would include a connection to the Internet, but in this book the mods are nanomachines and I believe information is kept on ROMs. Oh my.

While it’s only 220 pages, it packs a wallop.

The Gloss: The cover image is a representation of the double slit experiment. In this image, the slits are the words of the title and the white is the wave pattern of unobserved particles. Excellent representation of the book.

The font was slightly squared and easy to read. Nice for my eyes.

The Characters: One main character: Nick Stavrianos, a private investigator or detective. He’s well rounded and likable. He talks to his dead wife a lot, in the form of a hallucination/hologram created by a mod in his brain. This image of her is realistic to him, but also a bit of an embarrassment that he’d even have that mod. He’s a logical thinker and pretty much accepts whatever life throws at him.

The rest of the cast was diverse enough for me to be pleased, considering it was written almost thirty years ago. None of the other characters had much of an arc, but that’s okay. The book is written in first person so I only expected to be able to follow one character’s arc.

Nick falls apart, slowly and surely, as the book progresses. He is someone who’s in control of his life and the discovery he makes about a company named The Ensemble (who he ends up working for, pretty much against his will) causes his mind to collapse in on itself. It’s subtle, how he goes from confident to questioning.

The Plot: Nick is hired to find a woman, Laura, with severe mental disabilities. She’s escaped from a locked ward at a psychiatric facility. In his investigation he shows up on the radar of the people studying her, and they ‘recruit’ him to work for them. In this world he’s drugged and wakes up with a new mod: loyalty. Because of this mod he works for The Ensemble without question. He ends up unravelling a much bigger mystery of how The Ensemble was using Laura’s disability to learn to exist without collapsing the quantum wave.

The Story: As indicated above, Nick gradually loses his mind. He begins as a fairly normal guy who’s good at his job and doesn’t question the world around him too much. During his investigation he’s recruited to join The Ensemble and is guarding someone who’s using a mod to choose the direction of silver atoms. This person is testing the mod to eventually be able to exist without collapsing the quantum wave. Steep learning curve here.

Nick’s mods falter and he learns he can ‘borrow’ her mind to move through reality without collapsing the wave, thereby ensuring that out of the millions of possible outcomes for any scenario, he will always have the most desired one. This is tested by him performing increasingly difficult tasks – like breaking into a building across town – as his confidence wavers. He ends up questioning everything and unable to simply accept the world at face value.

I believe Nick is also part of the testing program, not just a bodyguard. His mods interact with the person he’s guarding, and The Ensemble put mods in his head, so it’s likely that he’s a volunteer participant in this study as well. Although he’s told he’s just a bodyguard and he believes that.

A background story item is The Bubble. Thirty years prior, this Bubble surrounded the solar system and blocked out the stars. No reason was given for this Bubble, but late in the book it’s revealed as a parallel to the wave function collapse storyline. Somehow, aliens knew humans were collapsing the wave and so our solar system was sectioned off from the rest of the galaxy.

The World: The worldbuilding was wonderfully integrated into the story. The reader is immediately alerted to the mods (which are helpfully bolded) and their basic function. Nick explains the mods to the reader in a way that’s natural. Kudos to the author on that one.

In addition, nanomachines are mentioned as something commonplace. These machines assist the mods in mapping the brain for compatibility, which makes sense, and also regulate the body’s needs, like suppressing hunger and whatnot. This is logical.

One aspect I enjoyed was how Nick thought of his mods. He understood he had a loyalty mod which made him loyal to The Ensemble, and he knew this thinking was out of line for a person without the mod. Just like the sentinel mod made him able to sit for hours and remain alert without getting bored. He knew his thinking was altered, and that knowledge made it easier for him to accept his behaviour.

Excellent bit of worldbuilding there, the idea that the mods work with the brain’s systems, not to change anything, but to enhance specific areas to produce the desired result. Need to be on a stakeout? This mod will allow you to remain alert without ever getting bored or hungry. Nick was a cop and “primed” by priming mods that made him less human but more capable of reacting unemotionally to any situation as it rose. Sudden bomb going off? Primed mods directed Nick’s behaviour to survive and assess the situation calmly.

Nitpicks: The conclusions Nick drew were accurate, but not probable. I’ve read many mysteries and although I know that books are contrived because they have to be, Nick’s conclusions felt too pat, too easy for them to be correct, and yet they were correct. Minor point, I know. The book was about collapsing the wave function and the mystery part was the secondary aspect, but it still bugged me.

Overall: Holy cats I enjoyed this book. It was hard and rewarding. I think I’d need to reread it to fully understand some of the quantum stuff presented, but I still understood enough of what was written to enjoy the story. Although perhaps not enough to be able to give a coherent review about some of the more difficult ideas.

The author’s writing style was easy for me to read and the info dumps were acceptable. Luckily, those dumps were short and compact, which helped.

The book held up well considering it’s thirty years old. I don’t have much faith in older books when viewed in today’s light, but this one passed easily.

I think I need to buy this book so I have a copy of my own. Maybe read it again when my brain feels less full.

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