Nick Stavrianos is a Private Investigator who has been hired to find a woman who walked through a wall. Laura is a mentally defective patient in a private institution who one day just disappeared. After a thorough investigation of the grounds, Nick can find only one answer, she must have walked through a wall.
Thus begins Greg Egan’s Quarantine, a novel that owes as much to quantum theory as it does Dashiell Hammett. Nick Stavrianos is a former top cop who came up against an apocalyptic cult whose goal was to carry out as much destruction as possible. His success in defusing their bomb plot led to a retaliation bombing against him that killed his wife. Nick retired from the police to work as a private investigator with an interactive image of his wife installed in his mind with which he can communicate. But that’s not all the software Nick has. As part of his police duties and later his private work, Nick had modes installed in his head which allow him to govern his reactions, his emotions and his reflexes. One mode can allow him to feel no emotions at all, not even boredom. And that is just the beginning of the toolbox installed in what amounts to the flash drive of his brain in a future in which the strongest resource of a gumshoe is the software he installs in his mind.
And Nick needs it all too. Because Nick lives in a world with apocalyptic cults thriving under the Bubble, the barrier placed by some unknown force or intelligence, which has blocked off humanity from the stars. As Nick dives in to find Laura by traveling to an outpost of China on Australian soil, New Hong Kong erected by refugees on land ceded by the Commonwealth of Australia to its aborigine population (vastly enriching them in the process) where any and all sort of business is legal. There Nick finds Laura, more easily than he would have thought and he also finds his own enslavement.
Captured during his rescue mission (if one can even call it that) Nick wakes up with a program running in his head. The new program supercedes all his former modes and its one single primary directive ensures that the highest priority for Nick is the welfare and obedience to the vast network of organizations who are behind the kidnapping of Laura Andrews. Laura Andrews has a very specific talent , she is an Escape Artist. Not through cunning or wit or tools but through probability. When Laura Andrews appears to walk through a walk what she actually does is play out every conceivable scenario of her escape and select the version of herself that results in a successful outcome.
The amount of effort required to engage in the smearing process deprives her primarily of conventional human intelligence but then Laura Andrews is ultimately not human but a messenger from the Bubble Makers. While humans collapse quantum possibilities each time we perceive and reduced the smeared possibilities to one, the Bubble Makers do not live this way and as humans turn their gaze to the stars and in doing so destroy infinite possibilities resulting in genocides of an unimaginable scale, the Bubble Makers were forced to act implementing the Bubble that shut the earth off from the rest of the universe to protect the universe from us.
The organization to which Nick Stavrianos owes his loyalty has studied Laura Andrews brain and is attempting to replicate that ability as a conscious effort in test subjects, one of whom Nick is assigned to guard. But meanwhile Nick finds himself joining an underground of the programmed and enslaved like him within the organization. While they are programmed to be absolutely faithful to the organization, with the capacity of the human mind for invention and abstraction, they have redefined their loyalty from the flesh and blood organization to the pure ideals of the organization and since nobody embodies those ideals like themselves who have been programmed to be always loyal to it, they have managed to warp orthodoxy and become their own masters so long as they remain faithful to those ideals which they now themselves define. This chain of logic is arguably the most brilliant sequence in Quarantine demonstrating the means by which people enslaved by an ideology become its masters by embracing a fanatic loyalty to its true and authentic orthodoxy.
And from there the story truly begins as Nick finds himself in a race for time against both the organization he is forced to be loyal to and the fanatics who believe themselves to be the true incarnation of the organization and the Bubble Makers beyond for the survival of humanity itself.
Though written in 1992 Quarantine might as well have been written today. Its vision of the mind as a flash drive seems all the more likely with today’s emerging technologies and its chaotic post-Soviet future had not truly emerged in 1992 but today is the world we live in, one where terrorists and corporate combines pioneer new and deadly research in the face of increasingly inept and clueless governments. Quarantine is today. While the quality of Greg Egan’s work these days has not held up to the hype, Quarantine is well worth the read, combining mind blowing scientific and pseudo-scientific speculation with meditations on everything from human identity to