Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Quarantine Mechanics

Perhaps I should have learnt from my most recent experience of him, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the backcover blurb that I couldn't resist checking out Quarantine by the Australian novelist Greg Egan.

The novel is set in the late 21st century, 33 years after the appearance of the Bubble, a strange, impenetrable barrier that isolates Earth's solar system from the surrounding space and which obscures the stars. While the physics, purpose and creators of the Bubble defy explanation, many ideas have been advanced for its appearance, and it has inspired violent religious cults that have rocked society with terrorist acts.

Nick Stavrianos is a former policeman, and a widower because of one cult's actions, now operates as a private detective in Australia. Originally because of his work, but now additionally because of his loss, he is augmented with mods, nanomachine-delivered modifications to his nervous system that manage all facets of his life, from those that permit direct technology interfacing to those that allow him to control his perception and moods. One mod, Karen, even creates a visual and auditory hallucination of his eponymous dead wife, one which advises and chastises him in equal measure.

Nick's latest case concerns the disappearance of a 32 year old patient from a secure facility for the mentally-handicapped. The woman, Laura, doesn't appear to fit the profile for a kidnapping victim, and is only missed by her surviving family because her vanishing may represent a financial reward for the facility's negligence. Nick's initial investigations uncover little beyond Laura's predisposition for brief periods of disappearance, but as he delves deeper he uncovers an electronic trail of evidence that points to her illegal transport to the north Australian city-province of New Hong Kong. Following this leads Nick to infiltrate the corporate headquarters of Biomedical Developments International, BDI, where he briefly encounters Laura before he himself is captured.

Waking up, he finds that his portfolio of mods has been extended with the addition of a loyalty mod, Sentinel, that makes him a willing slave of BDI. With his particular background, he's of use to them as a security guard in a project they're undertaking based on their analysis of Laura. Her ability to escape secure accommodation is just the tip of an iceberg of talent that BDI have reverse-engineered into a new mod, Ensemble, that breaks new ground in quantum mechanics (QM). By interfering with normal human brain function and preventing wavefunction collapse (via a version of "consciousness causes collapse"), the mod allows its user to "smear" their reality, such that they can choose the outcome of events from the wide array of possibilities presented by the quantum nature of reality. In this way, the user operates somewhat like a quantum computer in which the "correct answer" to a problem is found by sifting all of the possible subjective experiences of the user, and then collapsing the user's wavefunction so that only this one answer is made objectively real.

Though this all seems impossible at first to Nick, the demonstration of Ensemble's power by the researcher/test subject Po-kwai, convinces him of its reality. But its potential for misuse, and its possible connection to the Bubble, gradually forces him to act despite Sentinel.

The above description does something of a quantitative disservice to the novel. The conventional part of the novel, that bit prior to the arrival of QM, only makes up about a third of the book, while the crazy-ass, reality dysfunction of Ensemble requires the final two thirds of Philip K. Dick-esque mindfuckery. To be fair to Egan, his flavour of reality distortion is quite unlike that of PKD. The latter's seemed entirely drug-fuelled, and allowed his novels to forsake coherence and conventional narrative structure, instead replacing them with a heightened sense of paranoia and alienation. Which is why, for all of the clever ideas that sometimes underpin PKD's books, I can't really stand them. By contrast, Egan's deconstruction of reality is firmly rooted in one of the many interpretations of QM, and is both cleverly thought-through and logically coherent. Much to Egan's credit.

However, it makes for an extremely confusing and challenging read. I said something similar of the last of his novels that I read, but the problem here is of a much greater magnitude. In Schild's Ladder, the difficult bits could be skipped since they didn't prevent the reader from generally getting the jist of the story. Here, after an initially conventional science fiction backstory and opener, the novel goes off at the deep-end to such a degree that it's difficult to make head-or-tail of a large and significant chunk of what's going on. While Egan is pretty descriptive (generally in a good way), I don't think I really got to grips with Ensemble until I started this review and had to think about what it was I'd just read. None of which makes for a positive prognosis for most readers I'd imagine. Those with a better grip of QM will probably make better weather of it, but I found the ideas and descriptions so dense that, at times, they passed through me as if I was skim-reading the book.

Aside from the difficulty of hurdling a key plot device from the deeply non-intuitive world of QM, the delving into Ensemble gradually pushes the novel's early concerns for the Bubble and Laura far into the background. While there are late digressions to tackle both of these, Egan's attention has clearly switched to thinking through the implications of his QM conceit. By the end, I was pretty sure that Laura and the Bubble were connected (a fact that I had actually immediately grasped from their close ages), but the "smearing" of reality left things considerably more opaque than one would desire.

One of the odd things about Quarantine's jack-knife turn into the ultimate nature of reality, is that it sort-of undoes what's an otherwise interesting future that he's carved out. From the get-go the idea of the Bubble is a fantastic one, and one that Egan runs with for a while. The consequences, political, philosophical and theological, of the sudden imprisonment (or is it protection?) of humanity are all touched on, and I was genuinely surprised that Egan largely left them to twist in the wind. Similarly, in introducing mods to the reader, he opens the reader to the idea that subjective experience could be as easily modified as a computer's screensaver. The early descriptions of Nick's use of his mods are quite brilliant, from the controlled use of his old police mods to focus on the case, to the disruptive appearance of Karen and its subtext on his (mis)handling of his own grief. But all of these carefully constructed details feel somewhat sacrificed when Egan hits his QM-stride.

So, again, a mixed experience from Mr. Egan. Despite the difficulty navigating the deeply counter-intuitive core of the novel, and with Egan's increasing disinterest in the book's early plotting, it's hard not to be drawn in and impressed by just how far he pushes QM as a narrative device. Even if it does seem as if he ultimately lost his way in telling the tale. I'll be getting back to him at some point, I've no doubt, but I'll leave him be for a bit just to give my head a bit of a rest.

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