Book Talk: 'Quarantine' by Greg Egan - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Quarantine' by Greg Egan

Alexander Wallace searches for the flashlight.
‘Quarantine’ has become a somewhat depressing word nowadays, not unlike ‘lockdown’ or ‘isolation’ or ‘distancing.’ It is a word that will become, to those of us who have lived through the pandemic, a reminder of masks and of loneliness and of despair.

But it didn’t always mean that. Greg Egan’s novel Quarantine was published well before the pandemic; it was released in 1992. One day in the middle of the twenty-first century, the stars in the night sky vanish. As such, humanity is under a form of quarantine, the nature of which is up for intense debate. Those who have read much in the genre may notice significant similarities to Robert Charles Wilson’s 2005 novel Spin in this regard.
The actual plot of the novel interacts with that in curious ways. This is, strangely enough, a detective novel. The protagonist, Nick Stavrianos, is a private investigator hired by an unknown client to find an intellectually disabled woman who had somehow broken out of an asylum. Taking the case, Nick finds himself embroiled in events that he never would have expected to be in.

The near-future Australia in which the novel is set (Egan is Australian, and sets many of his works in that country) has shades of cyberpunk. Neural implants are commonplace in this world. Much of the world is in the throes of civil unrest; Egan mentions a bitter terrorist campaign fighting for the independence of Saxony, and there is a famine in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Perhaps most bitterly, the People’s Republic of China is mentioned as having crushed a popular uprising in Hong Kong. Through an agreement with the aboriginal nations there, refugees from Hong Kong founded a new city in Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory; much of the novel is set there (although Nick starts off in Perth).

Like many of Egan’s works, this book is heavy on the science, to the point it can be hard to parse. The novel in particular deals with quantum mechanics, particularly the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation in which human consciousness is quintessential to the operation of probability. There may be a few moments when you glaze over some of the minutiae, but overall Egan explains it well enough. It’s telling, though, that the actual physics is some of the most mind-bending things in this book.

As much as I enjoyed it, Quarantine does suffer from some of the flaws that show in other works of Greg Egan. The prose is often blunt, and he has a tendency to infodump in a way that could have been trimmed. His characters are also not the most well-developed, but they’re good enough to keep the story going. It’s a shame, because on occasion Egan has shown that his characters can have depth and that his arcs can be moving; I recommend his short story The Cutie or his novella Oceanic, winner of the 1999 Hugo Award for Best Novella, to see what he can do in that regard.

Quarantine was good in a way only science fiction can be: a profound thought experiment with an engaging plot to boot. Egan is very much an old-school writer reminiscent of the style that John W. Campbell promoted, and he may please fans of that era while frustrating those who prefer later work. In any case, it is a sterling example of compelling hard science fiction, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

(a postscript - Egan’s website is quite amusing)

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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