QUARANTINE – Greg Egan (1992)

Quarantine Greg EganGreg Egan’s first novel, An Unusual Angle, was published in 1983, Egan being 22 at the time. It “concerns a high school boy who makes movies inside his head using a bio-mechanical camera, one that he has grown.” Nine years later, Quarantine appeared and instantly removed all doubts about Egan’s erstwhile juvenile talents.

What starts as a detective set in 2067 quickly turns into a head spinning novel about the possible existential effects of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics – more specifically the consciousness causes collapse variant. In short: humans observing stuff limits the number of possible worlds.

If you thought the popcorn sci-fi of Dark Matter was hard, well, this is the real deal. On the other hand, compared to the only other Egan I’ve read so far – the brilliant Schild’s Ladder – this is an easier, more accessible book.

The first half is smooth reading: Nick Stavrianos, a hardboiled PI, investigates a kidnapping/closed room mystery. The specifics of the setting – Earth quarantined by “an impenetrable gray shield that slid into place around the solar system” in 2034 – seem a cool yet inconsequential backdrop at first. It’s brilliant how Egan manages to weld the two mysteries together.

The same goes for the other science fictional thing Quarantine features: mental modifications people install in their brains via nanobots. Again seemingly gimmicky in the first half of the book, it nonetheless gives the detective story a futuristic, exciting edge that would not be out of place in a Hollywood action flick.

But as the story progresses, Egan first uses the mental mods to make serious observations about free will and what authentic emotions entail, and when the book hits full gear the mods also prove to be crucial to further the plot – multiple times. On top of that, he also manages to comment on social cooperation via one particular mod.

It is the hallmark of economic writing: do multiple things with one idea. There are only 221 pages, and the book is tightly plotted – so much even that the sci-fi gimmicks that lure in the unsuspecting reader turn out not to be mere gimmicks, but vehicles for existential philosophy.

Egan uses his story to show the consequences of a theory that seems entertaining –  a specific form of the multiple worlds theory – but when thought trough might not be so entertaining at all.

That is the hallmark of great science fiction: using fiction to illuminate possible scientific realities – in this case to explore “what quantum mechanics tells us about the fundamental nature of reality.” The caveat here is that Egan chose the set-up mainly for its entertainment value, not because of its plausibility. Moreover, in a 2008 essay on his website, he corrects two of the scientific mistakes he discovered in retrospect – it’s interesting, but has spoilers. Egan’s honesty shows his deontological attitude, just as the anecdote with which I started my review of Schild’s Ladder.

While all that science talk may sound dry or boring to some, rest assured: the book retains its noir mystery aura throughout its 221 pages. One only needs to buckle up for some serious quantum augmentation, and that means a bit of slower reading, starting about the halfway mark. Being forced to slow down to take everything in isn’t bad: Quarantine kept my mind limber, and that’s just how I like it.

Some sites group this book as part of a series – Subjective Cosmology – but the books aren’t related, except for a shared conceptual angle. So don’t worry about getting sucked into a long story, this is a stand alone. Still, you might get sucked into reading more of Greg Egan’s oeuvre. The book hardly feels dated, and there’s not much to improve – I might have added a few pages to flesh out certain stuff a bit more.

Recommended, and a good place as any to start Egan. 

Quarantine Greg Egan Peter Gudynas

Terrible first edition cover. The 90ies were a general disaster for all matters of style, and computer graphic design was in its infancy. Add to that an impossible conundrum for the artist: a book that starts as a cyberpunk detective and morphs into applied quantum mechanics…

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Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

21 responses to “QUARANTINE – Greg Egan (1992)

  1. I like an ideas novel, though the physics may be somewhat beyond my grasp. And for its date (even given his subsequent caveats) this still sounds, two decades on, as though one can willingly suspend disbelief.


  2. It’s strange how I‘ve read only a few short pieces from him. Just recently „Wang‘s Carpet“. Ooooh, I loved it!


  3. Ok, this one goes unreservedly on my TBR. Sounds very intriguing, and I’d like to see what Egan does with this theory 😀
    Great review, not too spoilery, but very encouraging 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anyone who thinks Blake Crouch writes “hard” sf is an idiot. And I mean a “eat my own poop and drink my own urine” kind of idiot. Crouch is a flipping tv show writer on level with the geniuses who wrote the Star Gate tv show. I loved that show, and Blake might be entertaining, but Science has nothing to do with anything with either of them.

    I just had to get that rant out because I hate Crouch for being hailed as some sort of great writer. He’s an entertaining hack and that is it. Grrrrrrr…..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m going to add this to my tbr and see what I think of Egan.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been looking at Egan’s name with interest and curiosity lately, so your review is doubly welcome 🙂 At first, the title made me think the core subject would not be the right one for the present times, so you can imagine how relieved I was to learn that the story went on a very different, and quite intriguing, path. And since you label this as the perfect “entry level” for this author, I will try not to wait too long before adding it to my TBR.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, the title was what made me pick this over the other Egans I have on my TBR, as we’re in the midst of a second lockdown in Belgium.
      As I said to Ola, I liked Schild’s Ladder more, but this might indeed be a safer place to start.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sold! I remember your review of Schild’s Ladder and it got me curious about Egan’s writing. That book sounds a bit too “hard” for me so I’m going to try this one first. I like the sound of the philosophical journey this book takes, as well as your recommendation for it being a good entry point for Egan. That first edition cover reminds me of the 90s so much.

    By the way, I noticed that you are currently reading Gene Wolfe’s “The Knight”. I’ve just bought a copy, so will look forward to your review. I’m hoping to read it before the end of the year, but you know how it goes…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Philosophical journey might be an overstatement, it’s just that the book asks a few questions.

      I’m about one third in The Knight, loving it so far. I think I’ll review it as a stand alone, even though The Wizard Knight is supposed to be one novel – they were published seperately with a few months in between as far as I can tell. But depending how I feel I might read The Wizard right after that, which is not my habbit. But you know how it goes… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s been so long since I read this book, I don’t recall many specifics, but I recall very much enjoying it. I’ve read 4 of his so far, though not yet Schild’s Ladder, and likewise enjoyed them all. They’re the kind to make you think, and as you said can require you to slow down just a bit to read them. One of these days I think I’d enjoy rereading this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: INCANDESCENCE – Greg Egan (2008) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  10. Pingback: Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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