If we accept as a given that any use of the word ‘quantum’ by anyone except physicists is problematic at best, and usually plain wrong, we can skip straight onto a discussion of Quantum Fiction without worrying about looking silly.
Is that ok?
So… Quantum Fiction, in a nutshell (and if Wikipedia is right) is writing inspired by quantum mechanics. It is a handy catch-all term for books that use multiverses, metaverses, characters affecting reality via the observation of it, reality behaving unpredictably and that sort of thing as plot devices. The term is misleading because, as with all aspects of what can be broadly defined as postmodernism, people were writing the texts centuries before the terms that define them were coined. Quantum Fiction predates not only the term Quantum Fiction but quantum theory itself (and this is only a delicious irony if you purposely misunderstand the basic tenets of quantum mechanics). However, unlike so many misappropriations of quantum mechanics (such as think-yourself-successful self-help manuals, Deal or No Deal strategy, etc) Quantum Fiction survives closer scrutiny because it claims not to be reality but a way of viewing reality. More importantly, it can make for good reading.
Acts of The Assassins follows Cassius Marcellus Gallio as he tries to track down the disciples of Jesus in an attempt to find out what happened on the day he was crucified.
Except, the action takes place in the contemporary era – complete with laptops, mobile phones, YouTube, tracking devices and colour-coded threats of terrorism. And also, the disciples exist simultaneously in the past and the present – they are found in churches that were dedicated to them centuries earlier, local tourism centres offer guides to where they once visited. And also, the ‘present’ of the novel is not quite our present – Babylon exists as a modern city and the Roman Empire still controls most of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. This all sounds very confusing but the triumph of Acts of the Assassins is that it is not at all. It reads like a thriller.
The histories of Jesus and his disciples are the perfect material for a novel that plays so loosely with time and causation. The legends that have built up around their lives can be viewed as miracles, stories, propaganda, tall tales, absolute truth or brazen lies. We have no way to verify anything and most of us find our comfort zone somewhere between blind faith and outright denial. This fluidity of history, of fact, allows Beard to create a universe without needing to explain it. We get it. And unlike other, less successful, postmodern amalgams of the religious and the contemporary (Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, Heller’s God Knows, Vidal’s Live from Golgotha) Acts of the Assassins is not concerned with point scoring or being irreverent but with narrative. For something that plays fast and loose with biblical history it is weirdly reverent. Beard treats the Bible in the way a comics writer might treat the X-Men or a screenwriter might treat Robin Hood. He assumes you know the characters already. He plays with them but doesn’t change them. (ok, the Robin Hood metaphor falls down here a little if you include Ridley Scott’s dog porridge of the legend, but you get my point).
Acts of the Assassins is, given the difficulty of writing about religion in an interesting way and for an increasingly secular market, spectacularly successful. It is thoughtful and clever and brutal and true. It is chock-a-block with questions yet, refreshingly, offers no answers. It accepts there are no definitive answers. That everything is and isn’t and was and never could be. It is a story about stories about the greatest story ever told. It is about everything and nothing. Now and then. It is a Chinese puzzle box of a novel. A garden of forking paths. A page-turner. A modern classic.
Any Cop?: Acts of the Assassins is a rare beast indeed. A novel that uses religion in an interesting way. Probably the most successful blending of literature and religion since Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.