Quantum Night is the latest in the ever-growing catalogue of science-fiction by Canadian author Robert J Sawyer, and turns his focus towards the nature of consciousness and agency through the lens of his protagonist Jim Marchuk. Absolutely fascinating, thought provoking, and a ripping good read to boot. I’ve never been disappointed by one of Sawyer’s novels, and the streak continues. A great blend of the scientific with the fantastic, with a philosophically and scientifically compelling hook, I put Quantum Night up among my favourite of Sawyer’s work, and one of the better sci-fi- novels I’ve read. Great stuff.
Experimental psychologist Jim Marchuk has developed a flawless technique for identifying the previously undetected psychopaths lurking everywhere in society. But while being cross-examined about his breakthrough in court, Jim is shocked to discover that he has lost his memories of six months of his life from twenty years previously—a dark time during which he himself committed heinous acts.
Jim is reunited with Kayla Huron, his forgotten girlfriend from his lost period and now a quantum physicist who has made a stunning discovery about the nature of human consciousness. As a rising tide of violence and hate sweeps across the globe, the psychologist and the physicist combine forces in a race against time to see if they can do the impossible—change human nature—before the entire world descends into darkness.
So I do consider myself to be a bit of a Sawyer aficionado. According to Wikipedia he has published 22 novels, of which I’ve read 16, a respectable 73% of his bibliography of long-form writing. There’s just this ineffable combination in his work that comes together in an incredibly engaging way. I think the thing that makes him such a compelling science-fiction author is that he’s barely writing science-fiction at all (even when one of his main characters is extra-terrestrial). A great many of his novels take place in the very near future, often within 20 years of the present day. The science underlying his premise is always well-researched, the fantastical extensions of such being so plausible that it’s often difficult to tell which of his claims are based on science and which are the sci-fi fabricated leaps.
Quantum Night is a perfect example of that quality. In talking about it with others, I’m actually having trouble creating a clear enough distinction in my mind between how much of the plot is based on current scientific understanding, and how much is sci-fi. In the same way that I’ve always felt the horror of Stephen King is best told through the incredibly plausible ‘it could happen to you’ stories like Cujo or Misery, science-fiction is at its best when a credulous reader might think the whole thing was science fact. On the one hand, it might seem silly to suggest Quantum Night is extremely believable when one of the major plot hooks is the discovery that over 50% of humans on earth are Philosophical Zombies, but then you look around and see Donald Trump sitting on 41% support among the Republican Party and you start to wonder.
And that’s really the greatest strength of Sawyer’s writing. You start to wonder. I was first introduced to his writing with Calculating God and Illegal Alien and they were definitely influences that helped push me to pursuing philosophy in university. Quantum Night has managed to both spark some very fascinating and significant discussions among my friends and I, but also given me a new-found phobia of anaesthetic, so thanks for that one. But really, for all that science advances in leaps and bounds, we still know so little about the deep and inner workings of our own minds, that any theory or rumination on it is worth examination. Quantum Night makes a pretty compelling argument if was just trying to be a flight of fancy.
As well, Marchuk is such a believable and identifiable protagonist that you really feel his turmoil and struggle with the things he discovers about himself. He has to make some hard choices, and they land with a lot of impact. When you’re going to delve into the nature of humanity, and of particular humans, it is important that you craft that particular person carefully. Marchuk’s strict adherence to Utilitarian theory actually served to really flesh out his character easily without needing to spend as many pages on his inner workings as might have otherwise been necessary. Maybe I have a bit of an advantage in that I’ve studied Bentham and Mill at length and depth, but just knowing that is the kind of person he is really fixed his actions in a rational and logical framework that did excellent work in this novel.
I really can’t recommend Sawyer enough in general, and Quantum Night particularly. I think after 25 years publishing Science Fiction, Sawyer just gets better and better. I don’t have a single complaint to issue about this book, and many positives to compliment him on. Between the great characters, fascinating plot, solid pacing, and just really really interesting concept underpinning the book, it should be a must-read for 2016 for anybody who loves sci-fi, philosophy, psychology or physics. Quantum Night releases March 1st, 2016, so make sure you pick it up early! I love any novel that can make me think, and especially one that can encourage me to discuss it with other people.
Dan Received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Ace via NetGalley