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.

Itty Bitty Book Review: The Companions by Katie M. Flynn (spoilers ahead)

Image from Goodreads.com and resized because it was freaking massive.

When I put this book on hold, I had no idea I’d be reading it in the midst of a pandemic. By the time I picked it up from the library I’d forgotten what it was about or that there was a quarantine happening inside the pages. Pretty coincidental and really good timing for the author.

Any story about uploading consciousness interests me, so this was a delight to find. An extra delight was enjoying the author’s language and storytelling.

To Start: This is a character-driven book, which I adore. The science fiction part of uploaded consciousness was integral to the story and plot, but the mechanics of how it’s done isn’t the focus at all. Instead the story is told through eight characters’ experiences in dealing with companions or, in some cases, becoming or being a companion, all with a pandemic as a backdrop.

The Gloss: This is a little book at just over 250 pages. A nice, quick read as well.

The cover has an interesting pattern on it. I’m not sure if the swirls are supposed to represent partial fingerprints, glue lines (like under linoleum), or soap smears, but it’s kinda interesting. The lettering clears the smears away to reveal bits of a person. This imagery is interesting because companions are uploaded consciousnesses, so the cover could easily represent how companions are only a bit human, or that we’re given only a glimpse of their humanity.

The font was big enough for my eyes to read, which was pleasing but otherwise unremarkable. The copy I read is from the library and it was neither easy nor difficult to hold.

The Characters: There are eight. Some have a bigger part to play, some are mere glimpses into another point of view. Each character felt well developed and fully rounded, so major kudos to the author there. Diverse cast as well, also excellent.

LILAC is the main character. She’s one of the first to be uploaded and starts out in a ‘can’ and upgrades to a skinjob. The main plot line is hers.
CAM works in an elder care facility when we meet her.
ROLLY is a teenager who cares for his five-year-old brother and works on his dad’s failing farm. Because the farm is failing, the dad earns money by deactivating and incinerating/crushing discarded companions.
JAKOB is an actor who didn’t know his consciousness had been uploaded, or that a double/copy had been made of him.
GABE is a nine year old orphan when we meet her. Gender felt fluid with this character in the beginning. Established as female later on.
RACHEL is a companion that was once an elder in the care facility Cam worked in. Also, she was a friend of Lilac’s when they were teens.
KIT is Diana’s consciousness uploaded. Diana is a doctor who worked on the code to create companions. We get a pov from Kit but not Diana, which was interesting.
MS. ESPERA is a wealthy woman who’s debating about whether or not to upload. She chooses to and becomes a nanny for another wealthy woman.

The Plot: This book had a simple plot: Lilac wants to find out who murdered her. The book opens with Dahlia asking Lilac to tell her “the story” and as Lilac does so, the reader learns how she died. Lilac learns she can disobey her programming and after attempting to suffocate Dahlia’s mother, Lilac gets into an elevator and escapes. She uses the bit of information provided by Dahlia to go on a search to find one of her friends from the night of her death.

The Story: The story was more about how companions evolve over the span of the book. Lilac starts out in a ‘can’, which seems to be a tube on tread wheels with pincer grips for hands, to a ‘skinjob’ which can look remarkably human. The reader learns that companions are leased by family members but ultimately owned by a company called Metis. Once Metis learns of Lilac’s disobedience, the recall is inevitable. Many companions try to live out their lives anyway because after all, they were human before they were companions.

A pandemic is in the background, brought up lightly in bits where masks are mentioned or how life was before quarantine. The question of how the virus came to be is addressed and solved, which was nice, and that plot point didn’t have too much attention put on it, which was also nice.

The story intertwines all eight characters. They all meet at some point, but forgive me please for not remembering if each and every one meets all the others.

The World: The story is set in our near future so technology and whatnot remains the same, except for the ability to upload a consciousness into a computer/robot of some kind.

The author did an excellent job in demonstrating how we’d treat companions and how human consciousness would feel when injected with programming. It’s a hard thing to admit, but people would mistreat robots, even uploaded consciousnesses, because we don’t see them as people or of equal value. They don’t need food or rest and can be programmed to do any distasteful job, so yeah, we’d treat them poorly.

The author also addresses the changes that would take place in a consciousness. Would the person be the same before and after uploading? Mostly, but not completely. Any programming would alter how the consciousness perceives itself and the tasks assigned. I mean, some of the companions were used for sex (although this is never explicitly described) and remember, that companion was a human once, a real person, not just a computer simulation or approximation of a person.

This relates directly to ownership. All companions are owned by the company Metis and leased to whomever has the money. These were real people once, who are now in android bodies and owned by someone. This was absolutely believable to me. Horrid, but believable that we, as humans, would do this.

Gender was also touched on in the story when a companion is put into a body of opposite sex. This concept marvelously demonstrates how people aren’t just the body they occupy, but the attitudes and beliefs of the mind. Being able to hop into a different body would be fantastic. To be able to decide how you want to present yourself would be awesome.

Another aspect of the world was the pandemic that had occurred. The specifics were never discussed, nor the difficulties of transitioning into quarantine for the first time. But it was a huge part of the setting of the story. I liked this as it didn’t overshadow the characters, just gave rules for them to live by.

Nitpicks: Eight characters was hard to follow sometimes, especially because I read the book in small chunks when I had time. Once or twice I had to flip back to the last chapter with that character to remind myself of who they were. This also made the last quarter of the book a bit confusing and that part felt a bit rushed.

Overall: I enjoyed the book very much. I love reading about people’s lives and how they react to their environment/circumstances and this novel provided that for me. Each character was interesting enough and I never felt any drudgery when entering a chapter with a new perspective.

I especially loved how the reader received some insight into a character before and after uploading, but not so much that it bogged the story down.

I’d recommend this book to people that want gentle, character-driven science fiction.