219 Pages
ISBN 0-7126-9870-1

Kathleen Ann Goonan


This review originally appeared in the SCIENCE FICTION EYE. This text may differ slightly from the edited version.

QUARANTINE, Australian writer Greg Egan's first novel, arrives in the wake of many fine, strong stories which appeared in INTERZONE, ASIMOV'S, and in Gardner Dozois' BEST OF THE YEAR anthologies. In these compelling short stories, Egan's clear, intense hard sf extrapolations have drawn from many scientific fields. In this book, which thoroughly lives up to the promise of his short stories, Egan indulges his penchant for speculation concerning quantum mechanics, with powerful results.

QUARANTINE takes place in Australia a hundred years hence, roughly thirty years after "The Bubble," a veil which science has been unable to penetrate or understand, swiftly enclosed the solar system and veiled the stars, spawning social unrest and providing fuel for the wildfires of religious extremists. It is a world where nanotech modifications of neuronal functions has changed the very nature of human identity in ways which Egan explores with the razor-sharp expertise of a high-powered philosopher.

The novel is set up as a detective story with a traditional first person narrator, appropriately named Nick Stavrionos. Nick has been hired to find Laura Andrews, a 32 year old woman who appears to be massively retarded. Yet she has been able to escape several times from the Hilgemann Institute, known for the state of the art security which protects its patients, and is missing once again. Nick does not know who has hired him or why, or whether Laura escaped or has been kidnapped, but the financial rewards are satisfactory and he sets to work.

In Egan's future, being a good detective depends on use of the most optimal mods. As the story opens Nick activates "CypherClerk (NeuroComm, $5,999)," which "provides a virtual larynx option, for complete two-way security, and "The Night Switchboard (Axon, $17,999)," providing the even greater security of foolproof information transfer after the initiatory six-week nano-machine mapping of deep language rules in the user's brain. In fact, technology permeates Nick's body, pressing just about every part of him into service, as when "bioengineered IR transceiver cells, scattered throughout the skin of my hands and face, collect and demodulate the signal. RedNet (Neurocomm, $1,499) receives the nerve impulses from these cells and decodes and buffers the data." This level of invention continues throughout the book, a vision of the future twining of body, information, and access which never fails to delight.

In his search for Laura, everything Nick encounters is a mystery; in this nested world where hierarchy is imposed upon hierarchy, Nick works his way through one level of mystery only to find the next situation even more baffling.

And Nick himself is a mystery, for he has no emotional center except perhaps a mod of his dead wife Karen, a holographic companion he activates as much for her truthfulness as her company. He otherwise spends much of his time "primed;" there are several basic priming mods--"P1 can manipulate the user's biochemistry, P2 augments sensory processing . . ." and so on. A former police officer, Nick has lived in what he calls the "zombie boy scout" state much of his life; he has for the most part given up not only an emotional life but has made himself into a robot of sorts, albeit a biological one. He is uneasy about having done this, which allows Egan to show us the downside of trying to leave our emotional life behind--the power of being human is a point which is strikingly made, eventually.

Nick is a good detective. He competently uses his various mods as well as his own powers of deductive reasoning and traces Laura to New Hong Kong, located in what is now Arnhem Land in northern Australia. Nick moves from shell to shell, from IS (International Services) to BDI (Biomedical Development International) to other equally faceless megacorporations in his quest for the truth about Laura.

Eventually, he is captured by one organization and invested with a loyalty mod. This modification makes him happily loyal to a shadowy Ensemble which eventually transmutes philosophically into an equally shadowy Canon. It does not matter who or what the Ensemble is, nor what its goals are. Nick happily serves it and is unable, because of the mod, to care why. The paradox of the loyalty mod permeates the book:

Loyalty mods don't whisper propaganda in your skull. They don't bombard you with images of the object of devotion while stimulating the pleasure centers of your brain, or cripple you with pain and nausea if you stray from correct thought. They don't cloud your mind with blissful euphoria, or feverish zealotry; nor do they trick you into accepting some flawed but elegant piece of casuistry. No brainwashing, no conditioning, no persuasion. A loyalty mod isn't an agent of change; it's the end product, a fait accompli. Not a cause for belief, but belief itself, belief made flesh -- or rather, flesh made into belief.

QUARANTINE is a mystery, and it's best not to give too much away, though I can tell you that it concerns "neural linear decomposition of the state vector, followed by phase-shifting and preferential reinforcement of selected eigenstates." Smearing is a more concise term for this ability, and the possibility of smearing--consciously manipulating the collapse of the wave function--is the heart of the book and of Nick's dilemma. Having to choose requires a self to do the choosing, and this is precisely what Nick has forsaken in order to "function." But like a good detective, he seizes and thoroughly uses every piece of information which crosses his path, and we are right there with him, caught up in the intensity of each stunning discovery about the nature of reality and the mystery of Laura Andrews.

QUARANTINE explores quite convincingly what it may mean to be human a hundred years from now. Egan's future fascinates, and the interiority of the narrative as well as the anonymous, powerful meta-organizations in which no one really seems to know the whole story evoke the edgy, European feel of Kafka or Lem--the intelligent man caught up in a situation which seems to unfold in a logical way, which is not only utterly bizarre but, for reasons unknown to the protagonist, depends upon him and draws him right to the center.

Egan's speculations on the connection between consciousness and matter/reality are well thought out. He adroitly finesses quantum theory to the nth degree, making the consequences utterly real--and at the same time, utterly unreal--to his characters. Relentlessly logical, he leaves no loose ends. Nick's dry, straightforward voice carries the narrative.

In QUARANTINE, Egan has taken on a complex--some might say impossible--task. He is tackling a branch of science which by its very nature is terrifically abstract, and attempts to make it concrete and meaningful in human terms. Occasionally important points are glossed over too quickly, yet Egan's economy is probably a factor in keeping the story moving and the reader enormously interested. Egan carries it off with his usual style, unremittingly exploring every aspect of the problem he sets forth for his characters and for us in this speculative gem.

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Last Update 11/10/98
Copyright 1994 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.