Derek Künsken’s series, The Quantum Evolution, so far consisting of two novels (The Quantum Magician and The Quantum Garden) is a brilliant space opera that probes the depths of a future human nature engineered to produce new subspecies. And they are wild, at times repulsive, at times capable of incredible breakthroughs in knowledge or massive deception and theft, at times mired in twisted love of false gods.
I’ve rarely been so intellectually engaged by the idea of a quantum evolution of humankind and so drawn to a set of fascinating characters as they fight and con their way across various star systems. They can do that with the aid of a set of wormholes, known as the Axis Mundi, created by a mysterious race of forerunners thousands of years previous to the time of this series – several centuries ahead of our own time.
The part of the galaxy where the action takes place (one major setting is around the star Epsilon Indi) is dominated by a power known as the Congregate that has taken control of the known wormholes. But there is rebellion afoot by a group with distant African roots called the Union. It has assembled an expeditionary force of war ships, powered by a secret revolutionary drive, and a mysterious pair of time gates. With the aid of the engineered genius of Arjona Belisarius, they intend to escape Congregate control and establish their independent sphere in space.
The Quantum Magician is the story of the multiple cons that Belisarius tries to pull off to help the Union while also gaining access to the precious time gates. To do this he assembles a motley crew of misfit heroes. He is one of the prime misfits among them.
Arjona Belisarius is a Homo quantus, a race designed to be most at home in a fugue state where the world, and subjective personality, disappear into the quantum probability wave functions underlying the macro reality we can perceive.
For Belisarius, approaching the quantum fugue was like standing on a diving board. Self stood above the water, reflecting upon it. Dissolution waited in the water, the extinguishing of self. To plunge in was to become part of the environment, to become like space and stars and the void, to cease to be a subject capable of experiencing.The Quantum Garden, Kindle location 837
A group of banks invested in the Homo quantus project to produce a subspecies that could predict the future, resulting in untold financial and military advantages. But the experiment was only partly successful, and the few thousand members of this group are most at home in contemplation of the universe at the cozy asteroid home known as the Garrett.
But Belisarius was too readily drawn into the fugue state, to the point where he almost died. So he left the ivory tower (actually a cavern) of the Garrett and launched into a career as a con man.
But humans are not the only ones undergoing a quantum evolution.
There is the Homo pupa, known as Puppets, small stature humans designed to be enslaved to the Numen. They are another set of humans with special pheromones that attract the Puppets. At some point the Numen became slaves of their own slaves, still worshiped and lusted after but now kept in cages. They are abused while adored, a repulsive behavior supported by a complex, if crazed theology.
In his complicated con, Belisarius needs a mutant Puppet and a fake Numen to gain entrance to the Puppet city. He also needs a master pilot from yet another engineered species, Homo eridanus. This subspecies survives at six hundred atmospheric pressures achieved either at ocean depths or in the confines of a massive pressure chamber. These manatee-like humans happen to be the best pilots in the galaxy, and their foul mouthed leader, Stills, becomes a big part of Belisarius’ plan.
Then there is a mad AI who believes himself to be a reincarnated St. Matthew and who peppers his talk with theological arguments. He wants to save Belisarius’ soul and offers a lot of insights into his character as a man lost in the world of normal humans.
A genetic engineer, a wild and crazy explosives expert named Marie, and the love of Belisarius’ teenage years, Cassandra, another homo quantus, complete the team to carry out the con. They are accompanied by a Union colonel, Iekanjika, who tries to ride herd on this strange and unpredictable crew.
The execution of the plan runs into all sorts of problems (cons within cons, spaceship battles, betrayals) and forms an exciting second half of The Quantum Magician. Along the way, there are fascinating asides on human nature, quantum reality, travel through wormholes and one of the best and most succinct summaries of the evolution of human intelligence I’ve ever read.
Künsken is a brilliant writer who can juggle all these scenes quite deftly, though the character of Belisarius remains a bit opaque in this first book. That is partly intentional, given the layers of deception he covers himself with and given the presence in his mind of something not really human. That is the quantum objectivity or intelligence which eclipses his subjective self in the fugue or savant state.
His ‘real’ objective, as he insists to Cassandra, is the exploration of the nature of reality, the same thing that motivates all Homo quantus. But is it? Cassandra can’t be sure. Doubt surrounds Belisarius and provokes some of the most probing speculation about his broken nature and need for healing.
It’s in the second book, The Quantum Garden, that he is put to the test in a still deeper way. After the success of his con, he and the Homo quantus become the most hunted people in the universe. Their only escape is to travel through time and space to find a safe refuge.
It is impossible to explain a lot about Belisarius’ inner conflict without giving away the major plotlines of the story. Suffice it to say that after traveling backward in time with Iekanjika to an ice planet called Nyanga, he discovers a new life form. It is the quantum garden, a black oily plant-like sentient that has learned to survive by quantum means in the absence of cellular structure and the form of photosynthesis that allows earthly plants to grow.
He becomes absorbed in finding out more about these creatures. The vegetable intelligences communicate by smells and seem to depend for their evolution on the transmission of pollen through the time gates. After a crucial incident, he sinks into a profound depression that is a partial setup for a third book in the series.
Iekanjika comes to center stage in this novel in an even more powerful way. After traveling back in time, she is put into a deep moral quandary when ordered to assassinate an officer. Her failure or success will likely determine the outcome of the Union rebellion, yet she isn’t sure who to trust or where to turn. It’s the most interesting crisis of the second book and builds to an exciting conclusion.
While The Quantum Magician focuses on a heist and adventure and The Quantum Garden on time travel and the high stakes moral choices it entails, both are filled with penetrating reflections on life and its multitude of adaptations to hostile conditions in the universe. Derek Künsken is a powerful writer, and the next books in this series are not to be missed.