Review: Quarantine, by Greg Egan

Quarantine

(Gollancz, 978-0-575-08172-7)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, July 2008)

Nick Stavrianos is an ex-police officer, now working as a private investigator. He’s hired to track down a missing person, one Laura Andrews, but from the outset the case is unfathomably mysterious. For one thing, he can’t determine who has hired him; for another, he can’t imagine why anybody should go to the expense of hiring a detective to find Ms Andrews. Laura is a severely mentally handicapped woman who has somehow managed to escape (or has been inexplicably kidnapped) from a medium- to high-security mental institution, the Hilgemann Institute.

Nick has a few cards up his sleeve. As an ex-policeman in the mid-21st century, he retains a police officer’s crucial tools, most importantly the ‘mods’ P1 to P6, which are brain-structure rewrites offering enhancement or suppression of various mental states, appetites, and senses. And Nick has added to his mod repertoire with a large number of commercially-available or customised mod applications, most strikingly Karen, a virtual avatar of his dead wife, with whom he converses from time to time and for whom he’s constrained not to feel any grief. Karen has concerns – well-founded, as it turns out – about the way in which Nick is approaching the case; but just as he didn’t always listen to her in life, he doesn’t necessarily heed the thoughts or fears of his dead wife. And as a detective, he can’t help but notice the odd turns his investigations have begun to take, which keep leading him back to two crucial questions. Why would a biomedical research firm take such an interest in the abilities or whereabouts of an orphaned, non-wealthy, brain-damaged woman? And what is the connection between Laura and The Bubble, a mysterious cosmic shield which, for the past thirty-four years, has prevented humanity from being able to see the stars?

Greg Egan is an Australian writer of hard SF with a deservedly worldwide reputation in the field. Quarantine is one of his earlier books, first published in 1992 and now re-released by Gollancz as part of a new uniform edition of Egan’s works. Quarantine does an excellent job of placing the reader inside narrator Nick’s mind: we’re introduced to his various mod abilities (and limitations) in a casual and natural fashion, and the parenthetical attribution of suppliers and dollar prices for the commercially-available mods is a very nice touch. As always, Egan’s writing on matters of scientific complexity is beautifully crystalline in its clarity, and this is coupled with a very strong sense of emotional awareness (allowing, of course, for the fact that Nick’s emotional state is usually biochemically constrained) and some inventive but very plausible near-future worldbuilding. The pace, too, is well-judged; with an apparent crime as an opening act, the novel starts with a quite compelling hook (something that can’t be taken for granted in an Egan book) and for the most part the required sense of suspense is capably sustained. The conceptual cornerstone of Quarantine, Laura’s almost-magical talent for escape (which struck me as the quantum analogue of the “plateau eyes” gimmick in Larry Niven’s A Gift From Earth), does strain credulity in places, but it’s all internally consistent and Egan takes pains to establish the underlying principles. And the tension whenever Nick places himself at the mercy of improbability is almost palpable.

Overall, I could find very little to fault in Quarantine. It’s thoughtful, engrossing, and highly rewarding. I’d recommend it as an excellent introduction to Greg Egan’s talents for anyone who’s heard of his books but has always felt daunted by the hard SF label which Egan’s work inevitably attracts.

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