The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken

Rating: 8.8 (out of 10)

The multifarious, space-faring human civilization Derek Künsken envisions for his debut novel The Quantum Magician relies on a network of wormholes to move from system to system. Powerful patron nations control all the wormholes while subordinate client nations must contract with patrons to use them. The Sub-Saharan Union, a small client nation, longs for independence from the hegemonic Congregate, which controls access to the only wormhole to and from their planetary system. For decades the Union’s Sixth Expeditionary Force, made up of obsolete, second-hand warships, developed advanced weapons and propulsion technology in secret. To launch their attack before the Congregate learns of its existence, the Sixth needs to cross a wormhole axis controlled and defended by the Federation of Puppet Theocracies. The Puppets want half the Union’s souped-up warships as payment for passage across the axis, a price too high for the Union to pay. Trying to force their way across the axis would end with more of their ships destroyed or damaged than they would have lost if they had made the deal.
Enter homo quantus Belisarius Arjona, one of an engineered human sub-species whose brains are essentially quantum computers. Belisarius is an exile from his own people, a free agent who uses his quantum intellect to pull off complex confidence schemes for paying clients. The Union hires Belisarius to do the impossible: move the entire Sixth Expeditionary Force across the Puppet axis without the Puppets knowing it. To do so, Belisarius needs to assemble a team comprising all the various sub-species humans have engineered over the centuries, each bringing a unique skill set to the table. But Belisarius has something more personal at stake in the outcome than he can let on, and the slightest miscalculation could mean sacrificing himself and everyone he cares about.
The future history Künsken conjures is a dizzying miracle, so expansive and packed with detail, yet we still get the feeling the author is only scratching the surface. The structure of the heist story, in which “getting the band together” occupies a significant portion of the narrative, is perfect for sneaking in plot-dependent infodumps: someone always needs something explained to them in such scenes. Meanwhile, Künsken keeps dropping brain-blistering science-fictional concepts on the reader, because why settle for one cool idea when several dozen will do. The Union’s ships are powered by virtual particles that jump in and out of existence and carry an inflationary force akin to the expanding universe. It’s the kind of concept sci-fi authors build entire novels around, but Künsken just tosses it into the bin like he’s got plenty more to spare.
Crime caper stories are reliant on sleight of hand; the plot of The Quantum Magician features the requisite double blinds and bait-and-switches, disseminated with a proficiency and confidence expected of a veteran author (Künsken has been publishing short fiction for over a decade). I must admit that I preferred watching the dominoes line up to watching them fall. Once Belisarius and his crew set the plan in motion, the story hits all its marks, but the execution feels a little perfunctory. What the novel gets right, though, is that its band of gene-engineered ne’er-do-wells, and especially Belisarius, are desperate to find meaning in their lives and willing to risk everything to get it. Pulling that off is the long game The Quantum Magician plays well.

Dichronauts by Greg Egan

Rating: 6.1 (out of 10)

Mathematician Greg Egan writes hard science fiction in its purest form; in other words, he is the kind of science fiction writer who writes because he has an itch to scratch. He doesn’t so much build worlds as generate models based around whatever theoretical concepts are occupying his thoughts at the moment – narratives driven by speculation about scientific concepts, the issues and conflicts that arise from them, and the rational thinking required to solve them. Egan has always done the science half of science fiction as well as anyone can.

Unfortunately, he is also the kind of hard sci-fi writer who isn’t quite as successful at the fiction half of the equation. He doesn’t do people well. His characters’ emotional lives seem to spring from the same kind of rationalism as his mathematical musings; solutions to equations that need to be formulated to move the story forward. Often, characters are distinguished only by a few rudimentary personality traits or physical differences.

The world of Dichronauts contains two spatial dimensions and two temporal ones, rather than the “3+1” dimensions our own existence occupies. The people of this world are symbiotes, each comprised of a “walker” and a “sider” – siders are parasites who cannot move around on their own and who need their walkers’ blood supply to live; walkers can only see one side of the world on their own and need their siders to see the other. Walkers and siders are bonded for life at birth, and presumably cannot be separated without causing damage to both.

The sun revolves around the earth in this world, so its people are constantly migrating to stay within its habitable zones. The walker Seth and his sider, Theo, are surveyors who scout the migration paths for their home city. Together, they make a discovery, and embark on a journey, that quite literally turns their world upside down.

That journey is not lacking for interesting turns and revelations, though again these are only stimulating to the intellect, and to the base desire of the sci-fi reader to explore and map out new frontiers. Some of the more interesting intimations about the relationships between siders and walkers are deposited into the story for logical reasons but are not investigated adequately enough to make it an emotionally compelling experience. And while the physical properties of this world are explored in detail, its society has no real culture to speak of.  The people of this world seem to exist only to rationalize their environment, which seems to be all the author is concerned with as well.

In other words, if you love geometry as much as Greg Egan does – and are satisfied by a narrative driven purely by reason – Dichronauts is your kind of novel (add another star or two, accordingly). I can’t make a higher recommendation without a more complete experience.