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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review: Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer

Quantum Night 
by Robert J. Sawyer  
Berkley Publishing Group  

What makes a man a psychopath, a thinking man, or a philosopher zombie (that is, one of the sixty percent of society that follows the prevailing winds of society)? These are the questions Robert J. Sawyer explores in his latest novel, Quantum Night, just out in trade paper.

Professor James Marchuk has developed a test for psychopathy called "micro-saccades." If he can watch you uninterrupted for ten seconds, he can tell whether you are a psychopath more reliably than other tests. A lawyer hires Marchuk as an expert witness on behalf of a defendant who has had other psychological tests with mixed results. When Marchuk takes the witness stand, however, the prosecuting attorney rips apart Marchuk's testimony, calling into question his operating motives. Marchuk, the attorney says, is only trying defend his family. He has no idea what she is talking about. When he asks his sister about this, he learns he has lost six months of memories from this time--six months of which he can recall nothing.

As Marchuk slowly unravels this mystery--tied to a study he participated in as a student--the world falls apart: Streets erupt into riots; president psychopaths march nations toward war.

Everything hinges on a flash of insight when he helps a friend's brother recover from a twenty-year coma. He's not the man he used to be, just as Marchuk was briefly a different man. They come up with a bold idea to turn the world on its head.

This displays classic SF at its speculative best. Sawyer proposes not one crazy idea, but several--quantum consciousness, levels of (un)consciousness that can flip, new perspectives on psychopathy and empathy.

The challenge of this work lies in that Sawyer sets his speculative goals at Olympic levels. He expects you to keep up. Reading other readers’ responses, I found this proved difficult for some. I admit that while I understood the ideas, a few struck me as dubious, so I performed some background investigation, digging deeper into what psychopathy was, which may be more frightening than even this novel suggests. Quantum consciousness remains in the hypothetical stage. My suspicion is that consciousness mirrors other genetic traits: It sprawls across a spectrum.

None of this detracts from the story, which follows Freytag's staggered cliffs of drama. For some reason, we expect perfect prediction from speculative fiction (note that last term), as opposed to allowing it to stimulate our imagination and possibly inspire future researchers to think outside the established, prim-and-proper boundaries of science. Sawyer accomplishes all of this in a drama that thrills.

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