Greg Egan: Quarantine

Last week I read Quarantine (Greg Egan, 1992), a science fiction novel that explores one of the more vexing conundrums in basic physics: the measurement problem. Egan’s stories (novels and shorts) often explore some specific aspect of physics (sometimes by positing a counterfactual reality, as in the Orthogonal series).

In Quarantine, Egan posits that the human mind, due to a specific set of neural pathways, is the only thing in reality that collapses the wave-function, the only thing that truly measures anything. All matter, until observed by a mind, exists in quantum superposition.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to explore how this ties into the plot without spoiling it, so I’ll have to tread lightly.

FWIW, I’m a fan of hard SF, and of Egan’s work in particular, so I was predisposed to enjoy the story (and I did). As with a lot of hard SF, it’s more about the exploring the ideas than about plot and character.

I have no pretensions that I’m a literary critic. I’m just an avid reader who likes to kick back and enjoy a good story with interesting ideas. Egan almost always delivers on that front. I’m in no position to judge the quality of his writing.

If I have any criticism at all, it’s that sometimes his stories end in a way that I find unsatisfying, usually because the scope of the story suddenly expands into something that reaches for grandiose.

(His novel Distress hit me especially hard that way. I rather disliked how that one ended.)

§ §

The measurement problem is a quantum mechanics question involving how potential futures become real in the present.

A question that expresses that problem involves the infamous cat of Schrödinger: what causes said cat to be quick or dead?

Specifically, what counts as a “measurement” of the radioactive atom?

When a decay particle hits the detector, is that enough to collapse the superposition between the atom decaying and the atom not decaying?

There are billions of atoms in the detector; does the decay particle’s interaction with them collapse the wave-function? (My guess, along with many others, is yes, this is where the collapse happens, but no one can say exactly why. I lean towards a theory that involves gravity.)

How about the circuitry the detector activates to smash the poison vial? That larger system has many times more atoms; is it enough to collapse the wave-function?

How about the cat? Is a living creature enough? Does it have to be a human?

In Quarantine, it requires an observer with a brain. During a key info dump, one character says:

“Ah. Existing computers, definitely not. Collapsing the wave function is a specific physical process — not an automatic by-product of a certain degree of intelligence, or self-awareness, or whatever — and computers simply haven’t been designed to do it … although no doubt some will be, in the future.

“As for cats … my guess would be that they do it, but I’m not exactly an expert on comparative neuro-physiology, so don’t take my word for it. It may be years before anyone gets around to finding out exactly which species do and don’t.

The speaker goes on to mention questions about how the trait evolved and what the universe was like before the trait evolved.

Note that, for Egan, a single human looking (or the cat itself) really does collapse the wave-function. It is not the case that the system is now in superposition relative to someone outside the lab who has not observed anything. (In contrast to certain thought experiments that claim this is true.)

§ §

Quarantine starts off as private eye story.

The plot begins in 2067 when Nick Stavrianos, former cop, now a PI, is hired by an anonymous client to find Laura Andrews, who vanished mysteriously from a special needs care clinic.

Laura was born with severe brain damage — large parts of her brain’s wiring aren’t connected. Her motor functions are largely intact, but the experts attending her say she understands the world at about the level of a six-month-old child.

When the story begins, Earth has been cut off from the stars since 2034 by The Bubble, which suddenly appeared out beyond Pluto (at about twice the distance to the ninth planet).

The Bubble, which has all the characteristics of a black hole event horizon, hides the stars and locks humanity inside. No one knows the how, why, or who, of The Bubble.

§

Nick comes to find out Laura has “vanished” from her room twice before.

The first time she was found on the grounds of the clinic, the second time a few kilometers away. In both cases, “just wandering about, with the same bland dumb innocent expression on her face as always.”

This third time, she hasn’t been found, and Nick comes to discover that she was, indeed, kidnapped this time.

Why she was kidnapped, what she means, who’s involved, and what The Bubble has to do with anything, are all points that would spoil the story if I got into them.

I wasn’t disappointed by the ending although it does get a little vague once the story is told and Egan needs to wrap things up. (There is some debate about what actually happened at the very end.)

I’m not sure what else would have made it any better, though. Idea stories don’t have the driving narrative arc that demands a satisfying ending.

[See the novel’s Wiki entry for more plot details if interested.]

§ §

By 2067 technology has progressed to using highly modified Endamoeba to carry nano-machines from the nasal cavity into the brain where the nanites perform engineered “mods” on the brain’s wiring in order to grant new skills.

Nick, a former cop, has a series of special mods: P1 can manipulate the user’s biochemistry, P2 augments sensory processing, P4 is a collection of physical reflexes, P5 enhances temporal and spatial judgement, P6 is responsible for coding and communications…”

And P3 “eliminates distractions and makes it easier to focus the attention” — very useful for surveillance or guard duty.

Nick has a variety of other mods to help him be a PI. He can, for example, receive encrypted messages that only his brain can decode. The contents of such a message appear as a memory to Nick.

The story also gets into loyalty mods, which can not just enforce loyal behavior, but make the subject desire nothing more than to be loyal and to resist any attempts to undo the mod.

These mods are generally permanent, anyway. The nanites code the changes with special “keep off” proteins that any other nanites are required to respect.

(There are also (illegal) “puppet” mods that allow someone to control a person like a puppet.)

§

Other than that and the ability to re-shape the body as easily as the mind (also using nanites), technology is pretty much as we know it now.

There are no flying cars or laser weapons (let alone transporters or replicators). There don’t appear to be conscious computers, and we haven’t solved consciousness to the point of uploading (a frequent part of Egan’s work).

§ §

For Apple iBooks, I gave it four stars (out of five). In my personal rating system, I give it a medium Ah! (neither strong nor weak).

Definitely recommended for Egan fans and perhaps hard SF fans in general. Also a fun read for those interested in quantum mechanics as it really does explore some of the inherent issues.

I should point out that Egan (on his website) says:

My 1992 novel Quarantine centred on a tongue-in-cheek, science-fictional resolution of that controversy, with a hypothesis that was chosen solely for its technological and existential ramifications, not because I considered it plausible. I said as much in interviews at the time. However, the world is full of misinformation about quantum mechanics, and while nobody would mistake Quarantine for a textbook on the subject, over the years I’ve often looked back and winced at some scientific flaws in the novel that go beyond the mere implausibility of its central premise.

So just take it as a fun read with some interesting ideas.

Stay uncollapsed, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

10 responses to “Greg Egan: Quarantine

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I actually prefer Egan’s short stories to his novels. Space restrictions force him to not get too carried away. From my perspective, the novels tend to get either tedious, overly speculative, or both.

    I think one of the things we always have to remember is that a fiction writer’s main purpose is to entertain you. Just about any successful one will and has compromised on their view of reality in order to meet that purpose. Although I have to say I’m surprised Egan did it to the degree he did here. He usually sticks closer to his scientific views.

    SPOILER WARNING!
    I haven’t read the book, but I did read the Wikipedia summary. A very interesting extrapolation on what it might mean if consciousness did cause the wave function collapse, particularly if it wasn’t universal for all intelligence in the universe.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “From my perspective, the novels tend to get either tedious, overly speculative, or both.”

      The flip side of that coin is that, sometimes, the short stories leave me wanting more. Kind of a feast or famine situation.

      “[Egan] usually sticks closer to his scientific views.”

      According to his Wiki page, Quarantine (1992) was only his second novel, so we’re pretty early in his career. Maybe he hadn’t really found his voice yet. OTOH, Permutation City (1994) is pure Egan, so who knows.

      SPOILER WARNING…

      “A very interesting extrapolation on what it might mean if consciousness did cause the wave function collapse,”

      He certainly bites the bullet on the questions of “what about before humans” and “what about outside human influence”!

      It would be fun to be able to “smear” and then pick which reality you collapsed into. The novel never draws the connection explicitly, but the process is very much like what quantum computing is supposed to do: pick the best answer from the superposition of all answers.

      As Egan says on his website, it was his better understanding of quantum computing that made him realize parts of the novel couldn’t work even within its own premise. As it stands, Nick’s feats amount to magic.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “the short stories leave me wanting more.”

        Definitely. I know after reading the Amalgam stories I definitely wanted more, which led to me reading Incandescence. I think my issue is that while I like idea stories, I can only have so much detail on the idea before I glaze over.

        “Maybe he hadn’t really found his voice yet.”

        I think he wrote a lot of short stories in the 80s. But maybe he a bit more willing back then to explore concepts he didn’t personally buy.

        From the summary I read, I found the idea of an intelligence smeared out throughout the superpositions, one that might have a different agenda from the individual instances of a person, very interesting. And a universe where everyone and everything else just stays in superposition, well, that’s definitely the kind of concept Egan usually is fearlessly willing to explore.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I can only have so much detail on the idea before I glaze over.”

        Heh. Like when James P. Hogan spent three paperback pages describing how an email message got from its sender on the Moon to its receiver on Earth?

        Three pages!

        “But maybe he a bit more willing back then to explore concepts he didn’t personally buy.”

        We all gotta start somewhere. His first novel, An Unusual Angle, was published in 1983, and its brief Wiki description makes it sound quite un-Egan-like to me.

        “Psi” powers?

        “I found the idea of an intelligence smeared out throughout the superpositions, one that might have a different agenda from the individual instances of a person, very interesting.”

        Likewise. It’s almost a variation on the MWI — being able to pick your way along possible branches. (Something I practice when my baseball team is behind, but so far I’ve just had average luck finding a reality branch where they win. 😀 )

        And the idea that collapse is due to a special evolved brain system — one not typically shared by other intelligent species — yeah, that’s pure Egan. (It’s exploring such grand topics, I think, that leads to the occasional overly grandiose endings.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Like when James P. Hogan spent three paperback pages describing how an email message got from its sender on the Moon to its receiver on Earth?”

        An explanation of how that works might be interesting, but maybe for three short paragraphs, at best. That reminds me of something Neal Stephenson did in the only book of his I tried to read, where he spends a lot of time describing a hypothetical bike wheel scenario, only to spring on the reader after a few pages that that was how the German Enigma machine worked. I had actually glazed over and started skimming by that point and then had to decide whether it was worth it to go back and reread the whole sequence.

        “Likewise. It’s almost a variation on the MWI — being able to pick your way along possible branches.”

        I thought about the MWI angle too, although in it you’d be choosing among alternatives that continue to exist after your choice, and no one would have to worry about humanity having any special powers to collapse it all. In both, it seems like there’s also the issue of working out how the various branches communicate with each other.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “An explanation of how that works might be interesting, but maybe for three short paragraphs, at best.”

        Yeah, that one always stood out and became my icon of info dump madness.

        “…only to spring on the reader after a few pages that that was how the German Enigma machine worked.”

        Sounds like Cryptonomicon. Yeah, it’s a thick book. Not one of my favorites. (Interesting stuff, for sure, but he does go on. It’s also one with a really abrupt ending, as if Stephenson just stopped writing.)

        ((In his defense, some of that stuff is pretty involved.))

        “In both, it seems like there’s also the issue of working out how the various branches communicate with each other.”

        Right, quite different from MWI in that collapse really does occur.

        Egan touches on the issue of communication between branches. It’s due to the wave-function itself, the connection is in the interference. For instance, the two-slit pattern comes from single photons interfering with themselves.

        In the story, some knowledge (such as the ability to select future paths) is, like a hologram, in that interference and only available when the mind is “smeared.” The will of the smeared mind is due to the combined probabilities of all the branches.

        Definitely some really cool ideas there!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Sounds like Cryptonomicon. ”

        That’s the one. I found it slow, plodding, and bit pretentious, although this was a long time ago when I had very different philosophies. I might react differently to it today, although slow plodding books still turn me off.

        “The will of the smeared mind is due to the combined probabilities of all the branches.”

        Interestingly, that is similar to how it’s thought to work in the brain, with multiple options being processed in parallel, but ultimately after a competition of sorts, only one being selected. The difference of course is that there isn’t really a collapse, just a focusing on one option. It’s even expected that the different options affect each other, some of which are enhancing, but many inhibitory.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I found it slow, plodding, and bit pretentious,…”

        I don’t consider it one of his better works. I have a long-standing interest in cryptography and encryption, so the book’s topic had more appeal to me than it might to most.

        It was fairly ambitious in that, IIRC, the plot is split into three groups in three time periods.

        I will say it’s definitely not the one I’d recommend for a first read of Stepheson. I might recommend Snow Crash for the richness of ideas, although it’s an early work and the writing is less polished. It might be my favorite of his, though.

        Not sure what I’d recommend for a first time reader among his recent works… I’d have to think about that. Maybe Reamde. (I really liked Anathem and Seveneves, but I’m not sure they’re first-time reader material.)

        “The difference of course is that there isn’t really a collapse, just a focusing on one option.”

        I think maybe that’s the one non-deterministic thing in all of reality. I have a thought that higher consciousness, such as found in human brains, for whatever reason, just might have actual free will.

        It would sure explain a lot.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I do remember those time periods in the book.

        I appreciate the thought, I’m not sure if Stepheson is my kind of author. Nothing against the concepts he explores, but I just find his writing too much work. Someone told me about their struggled reading of Seveneves, and it sounded too similar to Cryptonomicon.

        But the very thing I find tedious about his writing has been cited by other friends as things they love about it. Such is the way of art.

        “I think maybe that’s the one non-deterministic thing in all of reality.”

        In terms of the neural version I was discussing, it seems deterministic. It’s always possible that quantum effects might eventually turn out to be part of the accounting, but for mainstream neuroscience, at least at this point, straight chemistry and electricity remain fruitful.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But the very thing I find tedious about his writing has been cited by other friends as things they love about it. Such is the way of art.”

        So very true.

        “In terms of the neural version I was discussing, it seems deterministic.”

        “Seems” being an important word in that sentence. When I consider the appearance of free will, our imagination, and the issues brought up by epiphenomenalism, I can see the possibility of a system balanced in a supercritical state such that thought can tip it one way or another.

        Thought does appear to affect our actions, and we do appear to pick among imagined future paths, and if we take those at face value, it seems to suggest to me a mechanism that might not be fully deterministic.

        (I’m not entirely convinced low-level determinism even applies to the macro world, but I don’t have an account to offer about how, why, or where, reductionism fails. I do think it’s possible it does, though.)

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