Who among us has not played the Tardis game? If you could go anywhere, anywhen in the whole universe, where would you go? There are the expected answers: a visit to the courts of the famed kings of the past, dinner and conversation with one of history’s great thinkers, a front-row seat to a turning point in civilization. Likely a less popular answer, though common enough in science fiction, is a trip to one of the darkest periods the world has ever known: the years in which the western world was ravaged by the Black Death. But for the interstellar scientist looking to solve a civilization-ending sickness threatening her own people, plague-stricken 14th century Europe is a must-visit. You know, for research.
That’s the trip required of the protagonists of Tristan Palmgren’s Quietus. Habidah is a time- and space-traveling anthropologist who’s been dropped off on Earth from a galaxy far, far away just as the plague is really ramping up. She is a part of a team of experts who have fanned out across Europe to report on the disease’s progress and observe how the population responds to it (if you remember your “Ring Around the Rosy,” you’ll know what they’ll discover; it has something to do with everyone falling down). This is not simply an advanced civilization’s cruel idea to study a primitive curiosity. As it turns out, Habidah’s universe is facing an existential disease of its own. The alternate dimension-spanning empire, run by incredibly advanced AI beings called the “amalgamates,” is up against a virus that seems specifically designed to attack their technology, and any humans who use it. Their agents have been sent out across space and time in search of clues hidden on other planets and within alien cultures that might help them cope with a disease that has killed millions and silenced entire planes of existence.
There’s a wrinkle in this plan, and it comes in the person of Brother Niccoluccio, a Carthusian monk with a troubled past, living in an isolated monastery outside of Florence. His doomed efforts to save himself and his brothers from the plague are the stuff of the ordinary horrors of the time.—until Habidah stumbles across him on the brink of death, and something makes her reach past all her academic training and save his life. The tentative, fragile connection that forms between the anthropologist with an AI enhanced body and this possibly suicidal, yet deeply faithful monk might, in the end, be the key to saving the multiverse.
Habidah is a refreshing heroine in a genre that often seems overfilled with one-note examples of “strong women.” Her intellectual curiosity and doggedness are her superpower, strong enough to make those behind a conspiracy consider her a danger, even when she’s only able to track down half the answers. She faces the constant self-doubt, yet never fails to follow through and asks the hard questions when her suspicions are raised—even when doing so is tantamount to a death sentence. In his own naive, stumbling way, Niccoluccio can likewise recognize and face the truth when he sees it, despite the threats of heresy that tend to accompany that sort of thing in medieval Florence. (For those looking for a little comic relief with their Socratic method and horrific boils, there’s a delightful subplot with an over-the-top villain who poses as a prophetess, putting the squeeze on the corrupt Catholic church—partly because she has her own mission, but mostly just for the fun of it all.)
The first two-thirds of the narrative pile on the plots—boy meets girl, alien meets human, and scientists suddenly growing a conscience—all while the tinder box is already aflame. Habidah and Niccoluccio’s struggle to make sense of the suffering they encounter also means debut author Tristan Palmgren has ample opportunity to engage with philosophical questions: the nature of free will, whether an idea can truly be our own, when and whether someone ever “truly” dies, the existence of souls, and the thin line between the divine and the infinitely complex, and wether that difference matters. And no sooner did I start considering all of these intriguing possibilities, than the climax took a head-spinning left hand turn, plowing through a whole mess of incident I never saw coming. It’s a great book that can put you into the same heart-pounding position as its characters, just trying to figure it all out. And despite the sudden adrenaline rush, the conclusion is in keeping with the thought experiment that carries the rest of the novel
An obvious contemporary comparison for this probable series-starter is The Expanse, another space opera concerned with asking the big questions while pursuing a driving plot filled with petty political intrigue and the threat of civilization-threatening mass destruction that unleashes a religious and moral panic. And perhaps there is no greater similarity between them than their insistence on the value of humanity, in spite of whatever else might be out waiting for us in deep space. They dare to show us the best of humanity: our capacity for empathy, and our never ending search to find a better way.