Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, January 31, 2013

1992: Quarantine (Egan, Greg)

Suspend belief and absorb speculation (5/5)

My first foray into the mind of Greg Egan was in 2007 with this same book—Quarantine. I hadn’t had a lot of sci-fi reading under my belt yet, but the novel floored my imagination and reignited a love affair with metaphysics and the bizarre realm of quantum mechanics—one branch of philosophy and one branch of science which are merged together by Egan to really push the reader’s imagination and subjective definition of perception. It’s not only Quarantine which pushes the limits of theoretical science and the limits of the reader’s mind, but Permutation City (1994), Diaspora (1997), and Teranesia (1999) all smack the bell of curiosity which leaves the reader’s mind resonating.

Rear cover synopsis:
“It’s late in the 21st century and bioengineering has become such a commonplace that people are able to modify their minds in any way they wish. It is an era which has been shaped by information systems so vast that security, in any form, is easily breached. You can be just exactly what you want to be, but the world outside and your life in it aren’t going to run any more smoothly…

Because one night, thirty three years ago, the stars went out and everything disappeared from the sky. ‘The Bubble’—a perfect sphere centered on the sun—made its appearance and isolated the earth from the solar system. Humanity has been cut of… Quarantined.”


Nick Stavrianos has been a retired cop since his wife died, a seemingly eclipsing moment in anyone’s life but one that Nick accepted with the cool demeanor of objectivity thanks to his “priming mods”.  Now in the year 2067, Nick is a private investigator who is still capable of superhuman objectivity, but also able to probe computer systems, manage information, and project a virtual reality atop his perceived reality thanks to the same “mods” in his skull. Though cold and calculating, Nick is the person he wants to be.

Using any of his six “priming mods”, Nick is able to enhance or suppress certain characteristics of his mind: P1 can change his biochemistry, P2 can alter information processing, P3 can focus attention and eliminate distractions, P4 can heighten his physical reactions, P5 can increase his spatial awareness, and P6 can improve coding and communication. In addition to these mods, Nick also has a cache of other mods (i.e. von Neumann, Hypernova, RedNet, Boss, MetaDossier, Déjà vu, CypherClerk, Backroom Worker, and The Night Switchboard) which assist in his data collection and analysis or improve his timeliness. His last mod, Karen, is the virtual presence of his deceased his wife; a minor testament to his ignored admittance and grief.

An anonymous client provides Nick with information about a severely handicapped woman who has gone missing from her hospital. Unable even to operate a doorknob, the woman, Laura Andrews managed to escape from her room on two prior occasions, but most recently she has left without a trace from the Hilgemann Institute. Data mining various leads, Nick discovers only one promising though unlikely lead which steers him to New Hong Kong.

Nick is unable to fathom why anyone would want the woman, one without ability, money, or persuasion. Scouring companies who would be able to provide Laura with the drugs she needs to live, Nick narrows the field down to one choice, a choice which he is casually determined to seek to his best abilities. The facilities for Biomedical Development International (BDI) are easily penetrated, but some regions define themselves as “no data”—a sign for Nick to personally investigate—where he sees Laura inside a double-walled room, locked out from the outer wall and locked out from the inner wall. He doesn’t have time to consider her disposition as he’s subdued with tranquilizers that even his “mods” can’t cope with.

The company doesn’t kill him, persecute him, or brainwash him; rather, they implant a “loyalty mod” in his brain, a reaffirming group of nano-machines in the brain which elevate the importance of the idea. In this case, the idea of the “Ensemble” is greatly important to the life of Nick now that he is under their wing. With secrecy paramount, Nick is aligned with a security job at Advanced Systems Research (ASR). The curious experiments of altering an ion’s spin seems repetitive and convoluted, but it’s not the spin that meant to be altered—it’s the outcome that’s meant to be tested. Nick is soon plunged into philosophical and quantum discussions of observation, collapsed universes, and multiple selves; all this gets him no closer to Laura, but the “loyalty mod” in his mind is still linked to cause.

Ensconced in ASR with the research advancing at a slow yet steady rate, the Ensemble circle also slowly begins to widen. Fellow Ensemble members congregate to understand exactly what it is they are loyal to; “What if it [the Ensemble] fragments, and re-forms with new goals, new priorities? Or, fragments and doesn’t re-from?” (126). To steel themselves against the possible dissolution of their higher organization, they form a lower, more secret organization called the Canon which discusses their loyalty: loyalty to the organization, loyalty its ideals or loyalty to the loyalty mod: “Forget Hegelian synthesis; we have pure Orwellian doublethink” (140). The resulting mental clout of loyalty offers a “distinct kind of freedom. The mental knot the loyalty mod has created can’t ever be untangled—but it can be endlessly deformed” (145). Thus beckons the question: “How radically can I deform the knot?” (151).

Nick becomes entrenched in the effects of the study on human observation affecting the outcome of events, where the act of observation collapses all lines of possibility to a single event with a registered result. The consequence of such innumerable universes of possibility leads Nick to believe that when all universes are collapsed as a result of observation, innumerable deaths are occurring in the parallel worlds of other possibilities. The part of the brain which collapses each eigenstate is controlled by yet another mod; this mod is installed in the test subject controlling the spin of ions, but Nick has also secretly procured the mod. However, the text subject is the only one who is able to “smear”, or embody and select the eigenstate which is most favorable out of the near-infinite number of possibilities.

Nick soon learns that he can “borrow” the smear mod when the subject is asleep. In the adjacent room, Nick is able to roll dice to consecutive shakes of snake-eyes, choose the correct combination for a lock on the first try, and even factor an impossible number is a short time, an impossible (actually, very highly unlikely) feat which should have taken the entire age of the universe to complete. This ability to choose the best path of possibility is not limited to party tricks, Nick realizes that even the attention of passers-by can be diverted to best suit his goal… this goal soon materializes in the penetration of the BDI complex and the pilfering of their own smear mod.

Little known to the Canon group are the dire consequences of using the smear mod and why the test subject has been limited to simple methods of measurement. The comparatively extreme forms of measurement and collapsing which Nick is perpetrating may cause grievous destruction to the world and may, actually, concern The Bubble: a star-occluding sphere twice the size of Pluto’s orbit which enshrouded the solar system on the morning of November 15, 2034. The question of “Why?” has been thrown around for the last thirty-three years and still no one understands the origins of the perfect sphere which caused worldwide panic and spurred the creation of cults which deify The Bubble: “Quantum mysticism, pop cosmology, radical Gaiaist eco-babble, Eastern transcendentalism, Western eschatology” (45) or the likes of the Children of the Abyss, who see any research into the mystery as an aberration of its godliness.


I think it’s misleading that the book’s synopsis overemphasizes the The Bubble, the solar system’s cutting off from the rest of the universe. Its presence and the resulting hypotheses are definitely some of the most interesting threads within the book to be knocked about, but being so blatant about it in the synopsis looks gimmicky. The sheer amount of mind-boggling ideas which Egan can produce and spin into a novel is impressive—it always has been (with the exclusion of some short stories for Luminous [1998] which didn’t strike a chord in me). So, the bait from the publisher is The Bubble, but the switch comes courtesy of Egan who teases the reader’s philosophical and metaphysical side.

If you have a multi-faceted brain with many areas of interest, a sort of generalist in knowledge and jack-of-all-trades, then the philosophical and metaphysical sides of your cerebral gem will intrigued. Quarantine keeps coming back to this point: What makes a human an observer? Lesser species aren’t considered observers, so there must be a biological mechanism in our brains which has evolved. It’s this mechanism which causes humans to observe the result of probability and collapse all of its eigenstates, or the plethora of possible outcomes. This is exemplified by Schrödinger's cat: hidden from observation, the cat in the box is either alive or dead, but quantum mechanics suggests that the cat is alive AND dead. The human, or rather the mechanism within the human brain which Egan hypothesizes, causes those two states to collapse: alive OR dead rather than alive AND dead.

I’m not one to go into the specifics about quantum mechanics because I know my knowledge of it is rough and I’m not going to take the time to outline it from Wikipedia. I do, however, have a long relationship with being wowed by futurism (don’t all sci-fi geeks?), parallel worlds, and scientific hypothesizing. Some of the first books I ever read were Micho Kaku’s Hyperspace (1994) and Visions (1998). Along with those mind-benders I also picked up random books about similar topics from Barnes & Noble and my local second-hand bookstore. I amassed about twenty of the books on various hypothetical and scientific philosophical topics ranging from the ‘50s to the ‘90s. Greg Egan puts similar topics into the format of a novel; the results are amazing.

Aside from the science and philosophy, Egan is keen enough to add some variety to the pages. When each “mod” is initially used or described, the manufacturer and the price are listed, giving the novel a small reality to ground the reader: e.g. Backroom Worker (Axon, $499), Meta-Dossier (Mindvaults, $3,950), and Hypernova (Virtual Arcade, $99). The mods aren’t difficult to keep track of because each is unique in function. Empowering two or three mods at a time can lift the user, like Nick, to perform superhuman functions or computing, data mining, or self-awareness (and selflessness on the other end of the spectrum).

One of the more subtle inclusions to the future history of the universe in Quarantine is the nuance of modern music. The music of the time, one particular piece called “Paradise” by Angela Renfield which Nick listens to, “is one of hundreds of thousands of identical copies, but each piece it creates is guaranteed unique. Renfield has set certain parameters for the music, but others are provided by pseudorandom functions, seeded with the date, the time and the audio system’s serial number” (22). At first the pieces hardly had anything in common, but after having run the piece over one hundred times, Nick can “see it resembling  a family tree, or a phyolgenetic classification of species … one piece can be judged to be a near or distant cousin of another, but the concept of ancestry doesn’t really translate” (22).


Egan has some newer novels out which, sadly, aren’t carried by the wonderfully stocked Kinokuniya bookstore here: Zendegi (2010) and The Clockwork Rocket (2011) with its sequels The Eternal Flame (2012) and The Arrows of Time (2013). His entire bibliography is chock full of scientifically bizarre tangents, ideas, and landscapes where the reader’s mind is left to grow, expand, and sublime. I can’t compare Egan’s stuff with anything else out there in the genre of science fiction; if you don’t read Egan for the bountiful ideas, then read Egan for his originality. Come for one or the other, but get smacked by both!

1 comment:

  1. Good old Quarantine; that and Permutation City are two of the greatest hard-SF novels of all time, for me. I did a physics degree when I was younger, and I would honestly say that the best consequence I've received for having studied quantum physics, was my ability to (just about) follow Quarantine.

    I've wondered myself about this business of what makes wavefunctions collapse. If it's bound up in consciousness, then God knows what's going on, but I have a feeling that *interaction* is key; that the photons that enable a human being to observe an event are the cause, not the conscious experience they subsequently feed into.