by Greg Egan
251 pages, Picador
Review By Marc Nash
Once in a blue moon I pick up a science fiction book. I can't recall the reference chain that led me to this book, but whatever it was I'm pretty grateful. The ideas abounding in "Quarantine" eclipse most works of ideas-led fiction.
A future in which humans have the technology to insert 'mods' ('modifications', a mental version of our 'apps' today) to regulate their brain functioning. If you're on a stakeout like our hero detective Nick Stavrianos, then the P3 suppresses all distractions, including the need to eat and release. A dead lover can be inserted as a permanent memory, living if not breathing, with whom the bereaved can continue to maintain conversations with. This in itself provides a fascinating commentary on the possibilities of our artificially taking hold of our emotions and modulating them and of course some humans who are so dependent on their manifold bioengineered states, begin to yearn for the real again.
The book opens with a wonderful protracted exploration of an espionage mission by Nick, in which Egan lovingly dissects the counter espionage devices and Nick's technology to disarm them. Clearly Egan is a man in control of his material, his imagination throwing up fully believable scenarios and a great depth of plausibility to the technological projections he makes.
Then, not unlike "A Clockwork Orange" the novel shifts in part 2, when Nick is captured, has a "Loyalty" mod inserted and begins a new job as a minder. Throughout the course of the rest of the book, Egan pulls and tugs at every possible ramification of logic to do with the Loyalty mod, as he fiendishly asks the reader to question loyalty to whom. Just when you think you've got a handle on it, Egan throws another curve ball and gets you thinking all over again. Tricky thing this loyalty impulse. The mod will only permit Loyalty, but following through the logic to its own reductio ad absurdum, makes for paranoia and a desperate yearning to remain loyal, but unaware as to exactly which side. Wonderful stuff.
But even this does not form the intellectual meat of the book. You probably need a smattering of knowledge about quantum physics and Schroedinger's Cat, which are offered up in the novel, but if you're encountering them for the first time I doubt they'll stick as the book goes in ever deeper. Basically Egan explores the notion of every possible outcome of any event is being played out on some level of 'reality', an almost infinite number of alternate realities. Any one person is only aware of their own, but millions of other thems are having different experiences, different plotlines. When one is observed by others, it "collapses" the alternate probabilities into just one reality.
Egan uses this to explore what it means to be human. Nick becomes aware that whatever the 'real' him decides for reality, murders every other one of the alternate hims down their parallel paths. Personally I think quantum physics does open up huge scope for just this sort of human meditation, so baffling are the possibilities we have barely touched in literature.
The book is not perfect. There are great tranches of text where two people are dialoguing about quantum theory in a way that lacks any drive or thrust whatsoever. And sometimes Egan runs away with his own logical twists at such a rate - particularly towards the end - that the reader is left unable to unravel and admire.
But this is the work of a master philosopher, all contained within a literary treatment and for that I absolutely salute the writer. I shall probably invest in another Egan when the next blue moon happens along. Of course I can control the alternate reality in which that happens and make it tomorrow if I so chose. Allowing for Amazon's home delivery service that is.