Monday, January 25, 2010

Readings — Quarantine

by Greg Egan

I remember, when I was very young, reading an anthology of Isaac Asimov’s science fictional mysteries; that is, mysteries with a science fictional component. He noted in the introduction that editors used to tell him that it was impossible to write mysteries that were also SF. I found it difficult to believe at the time, but after reading Greg Egan’s Quarantine I have to wonder a bit.

It’s not that Quarantine is a bad book. Far from it. It’s well-written, imaginative, challenging thematically and intellectually — Egan works some solid science and math into the story, and keeps things moving along briskly enough that it never bogs down or comes to feel like a digression. His first-person narrator has enough life to carry the story, and enough cleverness and competence to make an acceptable genre hero.

So: This is a good book, and I recommend it. But. At the start of the novel, a private eye, our main character, is hired for a new and seemingly-mundane case. That’s all right. Only the setting is the late twenty-first century, when forces unknown have isolated human beings from the rest of the universe; a kind of bubble appeared around the solar system some years before. Now ... reading the book, I found myself waiting to see how that bubble would play into the unfolding mystery. As indeed it did; because it had to. Because it was part of the world. Because it was part of the SF given. Because why was it there, if not to be in the story? So the apparent triviality of the mystery was obviously a red herring. You knew, all genre conventions aside, that the private eye was going to stumble on something bigger than he could have imagined; because the story had to be structured in that way, just to accommodate its own setting.

It’s not a critical problem, by any means. But it does point up the difficulties that long-ago editor expressed to Asimov. It's not that your suspension of disbelief is challenged, but your suspension of awareness of conventions; your suspension of foreknowledge, if you like. When two sets of conventions mix, sometimes they do get in each others' way.

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