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Quarantine by Greg Egan
(Orion Millennium, £5.99, 248 pages, paperback; first published 1992, reissued 26 August 1999.)

First published in 1992, Greg Egan's first mass-market novel is now available again from Millennium. Re-reading it after seven years reinforced rather than changed my opinion of the book, which I have always thought was a great concept lacking only a decent set of characters and a coherent plot to make it really work.

Australian Greg Egan has always been on the bleeding edge of hard SF, and his short stories are object lessons in how to express very difficult scientific concepts as fiction. But in a short story, the idea can be paramount, and characters do not need to be fully-drawn to engage the reader. Egan took a few novels to figure out the difference, and Distress in 1995 is, for me, his most integrated and successful novel to date. The next work, Diaspora, took a step backwards, and overwhelmed with its working out of a thoroughly nightmarish idea, so it will be interesting to see which direction Egan has gone with his new novel, Teranesia.

Quarantine is set in a near future, thirty-three years after the stars went out. Not literally: the whole Solar System has been enclosed in a perfect sphere, centred on the Sun, isolating the human race from the rest of the universe. Why this has happened underlies every event in the book, and Egan does a good job of gradually unfolding the complex quantum physics to reveal the reason for the barrier.

On Earth, bioengineering has become commonplace, with information systems introduced directly into the brain. Private investigator Nick Stavrianos is a case in point, a man with a headful of IT, in a search for a brain-damaged woman who mysteriously vanishes from the institution she is housed in. In uncovering the mystery of who and what Laura Andrews is, Stavrianos comes close to unravelling the secret of the Bubble.

So far, so good. Egan's eye for detail is telling, and he communicates Stavrianos' life and his environment well. Where the novel fails is in the sheer amount of detail Egan needs to communicate to get across his ideas. The plot creeps along, characters hang around undeveloped (even Stavrianos, who is conveniently lobotomised by his own internal IT for much of the time), all the while Egan is info-dumping page after page of quantum physics speculation. It's interesting, but hard-going and not a great incentive to keep on turning those pages. Not a book for the faint-hearted or the peripheral SF fan to pick up. A fascinating failure, all the same.

Review by John D Owen.

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© John D Owen 9 October 1999