1992 was a golden year for SF novels: Connie Willis's Doomsday Book slugged it out for the Hugo with Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep; Kim Stanley Robinson started a landmark trilogy about the colonization of the Red Planet with the Nebula winning Red Mars; John Varley returned to his Eight Worlds with Steel Beach, while Iain M. Bank's Use of Weapons was perhaps his best Culture novel to date; and there were memorable debuts from Maureen McHugh, with China Mountain Zhang and Eric Brown with Meridian Days. But perhaps, with hindsight, the most notable first SF novel of that year was Greg Egan's Quarantine.
Quarantine opens thirty-three years after the stars went out one night, in a "circle of darkness, growing from the anti-solar point like the mouth of a coal-black worm" (p. 15). No one knows precisely who or what is behind "The Bubble," but the consensus is that it is an alien construct. Since then various Millennial cults have arisen, most notably the Children of the Abyss who believe that they are living in what Egan describes as the Age of Mayhem.
Nick Stavrianos is an ex-policeman whose wife was murdered by the Children in retaliation for Nick foiling one of their attacks. Now Nick works as a private investigator. In this hardwired world, information can be downloaded in one's sleep, so that one awakes simply knowing facts. Quarantine opens with Nick having taken an overnight call from an unknown client, hiring him to investigate the disappearance of a mentally-handicapped woman from a nursing home. Nick tracks her to the off-shore enclave of New Hong Kong, where he is captured and reprogrammed by the shadowy Ensemble. Made slavishly loyal by behavioural modifications to his new masters, he is overjoyed to be assigned as bodyguard to a researcher.
Nick believes at first that the research is into game theory, but Po-Kwai (the researcher) explains to him that the experiment involves the quantum measurement problem made famous by Schrodinger's Cat, and whether it lives or dies:
The problem is: before you make a measurement in either of these cases, the wave function doesn't tell you what the outcome is going to be; it just tells you that there's a fifty-fifty chance either way. But once you've made the measurement, a second measurement on the same system will always give the same result; if the cat was dead the first time you looked, it will still be dead if you look again. In terms of the wave function, the act of making the measurement has, somehow, changed it from a mixture of two waves, representing the two possibilities, to a "pure" wave—called an eigenstate—representing just one. (p.114)
It is the implications—which only gradually unfold, unlike the compact way that the initial experiment is explained—of Po-Kwai's research that are mind-boggling. They offer a new understanding of the nature of humanity and the fact that we may have far more effort on the universe than we believe, on the nature of Nick's behavioural modifications, and even onto the mysterious entities behind the creation of The Bubble. At the same time as those implications are revealed, Nick discovers more about the mysterious Ensemble, and Quarantine becomes both philosophical treatise and procedural whodunnit, a hard feat to pull off, but the two threads do eventually converge in a stunning ending.
Quarantine echoes a number of Egan's earlier short stories. The "priming" and "de-priming" of behavioural modifications and drugs and their side-effects also occurs in his novelette "The Caress," featured in the January 1990 Asimovs—and the question of identity, and what makes us what and who we are is core to "Learning To Be Me" from that year's Interzone (both featured in Dozois' eighth Year's Best) and it's likely that those short stories reflect a rehearsal for what was to eventually become Quarantine.
Quarantine holds up pretty well, although the sub-plot involving the nature of the Ensemble fades in an out, losing the reader's interest because there's no real urgency for a long period of time. Once the Ensemble's involvement and precise nature again comes to the fore, the pace of the book quickens; while the final destination is stunning, a more experienced writer might have found a way of keeping the sub-plots in better sync for the journey.
One of the criticisms levelled at Egan is that his characters are cold, even mechanical, and there is justification in that. In Quarantine Nick is deliberately mechanistic, as a result of his suppression of his natural reaction to Karen's loss, and Egan plays Devil's Advocate:
"Are neural mods so terrible, because they do it so well—because they actually let people get what they want? Do you honestly think that the brain-wiring that comes from natural selection, and an accidental life, and people's own—largely ineffectual—striving to change themselves 'naturally,' is some kind of touchstone of perfection?" (p. 187)
Sub-plot reservations apart, Quarantine feels astonishingly controlled for an early novel—perhaps Egan made his mistakes with the long out of print almost-mainstream An Unsual Angle, which would explain his facility.
By contrast, Teranesia is a much more human novel than Quarantine. And as good as Quarantine is, Teranesia is much, much better.
On a tiny island near the Moluccas, so remote it doesn't appear on any maps, nine-year-old Prabhir and his younger sister Maddy live an idyllic existence with their parents, who are studying the local butterfly population for signs of mutations. But when secessionist rebels in nearby Indonesia start a revolt, the fighting spills outwards and tragedy engulfs the family. Prabhir and Maddy end up in Northern Australia, and from there find their way to his mother's cousin in Canada.
Egan does a fine job of showing the reader the world through a bright child's eyes, including sometimes blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in a very child-like way.
He also allows a mischievous sense of humour full release, particularly his spoofs of ever more intellectually copyrighted shows, such as MusicInTheStyleOf™ GilbertAndSullivan™, and his lampooning of the pretentious pseudo-intellectuals in Toronto espousing the latest bubble-headed fad ("all Big Dumb Neoligisms and thesaurus-driven bluster," p. 132) as they seek to portray binary code as symbols of patriarchal oppression are priceless ("Zero and one. Absence and presence. And just look how they're drawn! 'Zero' is female: the womb, the vagina. 'One' is male: unmistakably phallic. The woman is absent, marginalised, excluded," p. 75).
(One caveat; it's one thing for Prabhir to be bright but his social precocity and cousin Amita and partner Keith's reaction to it (or lack of) ring a rare false note, but it's not enough to spoil the whole section. )
As Prabhir and Maddy reach adulthood, rumours start to emerge of mutant birds appearing on various islands radiating outward from Teranesia. Maddy decides to return to the islands, but Prabhir refuses to help her find the fee. Later, driven by remorse and concerned for her safety, he follows her, despite being sure that she won't appreciate his protection. In fact, Prabhir has his own less noble reasons for following her, and one of the novel's finest passages occurs when he is finally forced to confront his own survivor guilt.
In the Moluccan capital Ambon, Prabhir bumps into Martha Grant, a freelance biologist who is currently funded by a drug company to investigate opportunities for them. Prabhir exaggerates his local knowledge and bluffs his way into crewing her boat for her. Together they journey toward the heart of the mystery. As well as showing a too-rarely displayed sense of humour, Teranesia also highlights Egan's virtuosity; entering a mangrove swamp to collect samples, Prabhir and Martha become separated, and Prabhir's subsequent encounter with a giant python that wants him for lunch shows Egan facility to write page-turning suspense fiction.
Adult Prabhir Suresh is probably Egan's most detailed, most consistent and most rounded character. As always, Egan likes to examine what makes us human, but in Teranesia he does so from a much more intimate perspective than in much of his other work.
Only once Madhusree had emerged, staring uncomprehendingly into a room full of faces and lights that he knew she'd never remember, had Prabhir finally seen beyond the vanishing point of his own memories. The thing he knew first-hand about her was equally true of himself: he had once not existed at all. He'd been air and water, crops and fertiliser, a mist of anonymous atoms spread across India, across the whole planet. Even the genes that had been used to build him had been kept apart until the last moment. (p.124)
As the novel reaches its conclusion, so the mystery at the heart of Teranesia is gradually revealed, and once again—without wanting to reveal too much of the mystery—eigenstates are again involved. It's enough to say that Egan is not only fascinated by that which makes us what we are but that, like Greg Bear, he is interested in what we might also become. But whereas Bear's transcendence is usually achieved via apocalypse, Egan's is much more controlled, and—in the case of Teranesia—entirely natural. That's important: Egan is perhaps SF's most committed rationalist in the mould of Richard Dawkins. If it cannot be measured, weighed and analyzed, for Egan it does not exist. But despite this, or because of it, he probes the human condition more deeply and with greater precision than perhaps any other writer in contemporary SF.
His maturation as a writer from Quarantine to Teranesia can be highlighted in two ways. With his first novel, he needed a big science-fictional McGuffin to kick-start the mystery; with Teranesia, he is happy to let a slow-burning natural mystery only gradually unfold. And by his fifth novel, Egan was able to create human characters both warm and flawed, and his characterization was as impressive as his science. Egan may or may not have become a better SF writer as his career progressed, but he certainly became a more impressive novelist.
Teranesia shows what a fine writer Egan was becoming by the end of the last decade, and without demeaning the cause, his loss to immigration-politics in Australia was just that—a real loss to SF. It's a delight to think that he's returning. Quarantine and, especially, Teranesia show why the genre needs him, and it's a pleasure to see him back. Let's hope that Incandescence is both all that it can be, and all that we hope for it.
Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance, Lightning Days, and The Silk Palace. He is currently working on Blind Faith, a thriller with the slightest speculative twist, set in Brighton in July 2005. He also has a day job, but it's not very interesting.