Derek Künsken’s The Quantum War, the third book in The Quantum Evolution series, continues the stories that blend exciting space adventure with probing speculations on the philosophical and religious implications of altering human evolution. At the heart of these novels, set in the 26th century, are new human species, especially the Homo quantus, endowed with prodigious mental powers.
A product of genetic engineering sponsored by the Banks that are one of the great powers of this universe, most Homo quantus never achieved the intellectual abilities to predict the future hoped for by their creators. But one among them, Belisarius Arjona (Bel), is capable of incredible feats of abstract thinking, able to perceive the universe as a quantum system, at times coming close to the hoped-for ability to alter the probabilities underlying the structure of reality.
In the previous novels, which you really should read before getting into The Quantum War, Bel pulls off a con to help the Southern Union, a small rebellious system with the Venus-based Congregate Empire, to achieve a military breakthrough. Then he worked with them again to go back in time to alter the Union’s own development and help them secure an important advantage.
But in doing so he inadvertently destroyed a sentient plant species, the Hortus quantus, and that mistake haunts him. Even though his partner, Cassandra, a fellow Homo quantus, keeps assuring him it was an accident, the act of wiping out a sentient species stays with him like a terrible sin that he must somehow atone for.
The Congregate was so enraged by the Southern Union’s success, thanks to Bel’s efforts, that they attacked and destroyed the home world of the Homo quantus. Bel and Cassandra managed to evacuate most of its few thousand people, but 155 were captured by the Congregate to become the subjects of cruel experiments. By implanting AI chips and wiring in their brains and bodies, they have turned these contemplative, scholarly people into the best fighter pilots, but only by destroying their personalities and turning them into expendable entities.
So it becomes Bel’s new mission to devise his most elaborate con yet to rescue the remaining Homo quantus from the heart of Congregate power, the intelligence headquarters on Venus. To do this he reassembles his old crew. There is the irascible AI who imagines himself to be Saint Matthew, appearing as a stylized painted or sculptured head of the saint, while carrying out prodigious feats of reprogramming to infiltrate the most secure Congregate systems.
What a shock to find outrageous Marie Phocas, who loves to blow things up, struggling to keep her wild nature within the guise of a rich debutante on her home planet of Venus. Her family is well-connected, incredibly wealthy and determined to fit her into polite society. So she dons a beautiful dress, disciplines her profane tongue and floats through a ball with clueless eligible bachelors. In that guise, however, she has her mission to fulfill for Arjona. Naturally it involves espionage and explosives.
Stills, the Homo eridanus or mongrel fish-man, is again part of the crew. He can only survive under hundreds of atmospheric pressures and so is confined to a great tank of water. His profanity-spewing voice comes through a loudspeaker, and his fish-like face only appears intermittently in a monitor. But he and his species are the greatest pilots of all, forming a powerful fighting force to help the Southern Union defend itself against the superior armaments of the Congregate., and in this case make sure Bel gets access to the intelligence headquarters.
Bel also enlists a fighting force of the strange puppet species, driven to feats of heroism and sacrifice through dedication to their grotesque religion. They worship the Numen, enslaved humans who generate pheromones that send the puppets into ecstasy. They literally breathe in a sense of divinity from the captive and caged Numen. Their smells, bodily touch and all the fetid air from their cages fill the puppets with a joy from divine closeness.
With the help of this strange fighting force, Bel puts himself at the center of his plan to infiltrate the Congregate intelligence headquarters and free the captive Homo quantus. But it is terribly dangerous mission that he might not survive.
Aside from keeping a complex story moving smoothly to its exciting conclusion, Künsken is especially skillful in elaborating the novel scientific breakthroughs that drive much of the story. This is a series about accelerated human evolution that leads in strange directions as much for war and economic advantage as for enhancing intelligence. But there is a great deal more.
So we learn about the details of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, the mechanics of powerful space engines, the induction of worm holes and even time travel. Above all, we enter the fugue state of mind Bel and Cassandra can achieve and see the quantum nature of reality through their eyes. It’s a mark of great science fiction when an author can extrapolate from present-day sciences and plausibly describe the most unlikely future advances, and Künsken is a master at this.
I was also struck by how deeply ideas about redemption and religion are woven into the story of The Quantum War. Saint Matthew, though an eccentric AI, has not only a strong conscience but places the actions he and his allies take into a religious context as well as an ethical one. Originally a creation of the Banks, who designed him for “hegemony and mass murder,” he emancipated himself through a spiritual transformation, imagining himself to be the reincarnation of Saint Matthew and adopting Christian faith, a mostly forgotten religion in this universe. He sees the struggles of the puppets with their Numen and the Homo quantus with their intellectual accomplishments as different pathways to the divine, though they may not understand it as such.
The Quantum War and the whole series (there is a fourth book planned) is richly rewarding and exciting to read. Every page is dense with invention, compelling human drama and wild adventure. The characters are both unpredictable and unforgettable. The Quantum Evolution series is for me one of the best of this century.