Book review–Sawyer’s Quantum Night finds explanation for societal shifts in the human brain

Review by C.J. Bunce

Much of the best science fiction doesn’t leave us with memorable or lovable characters so much as incredible, imaginative ideas, and prescient or prophetic visions.  When you look to science fiction’s past, examples can be found throughout the works of H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury.  Great concepts abound, like Wells’ time travel, Mary Shelley stretching the bounds–and horrors–of medical science, Dick always wrestling with the perils and annoyances of technology, and Michael Crichton finding ways to use science to change the future.  Robert J. Sawyer is a current science fiction author building on the ideas of the past, and like all of the above writers who researched the real science behind their characters, he delves deep into his subjects.  In his novel Quantum Night, now available in paperback, he has with surgical precision stitched together a tale of modern truths and horrors, bundled in a story pressing the bounds of psychology and quantum theory to explain why the world may seem to be falling apart, and offering one way to try to repair it.

In a very educational way, Quantum Night is also a refresher in Psychology 101.  Sawyer, one of only three science fiction writers ever to have won the trifecta of writing awards (the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Campbell), references every major theory and experiment from college days along with enough background in quantum theory to support a compelling thriller.  By book’s end you may find yourself staring at strangers and questioning their level of consciousness, conscience, and psychopathy.  You may be sitting next to a psychopathic individual right now, or someone with a mind that may be even more gut-wrenching to discover.  Written in 2015 and taking place in the not-so-distant future, Russian President Vladimir Putin readies to fire nuclear weapons on the United States.  A future U.S. President gets Roe v. Wade overturned, has gotten his country to turn on immigrants and then invades Canada, led by its first Muslim prime minister (here Sawyer predicts the future of the current real-life Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi), purportedly so the U.S. can secure Canada’s cities when the country no longer is able to control the flow of terrorists.

The story follows a professor of psychology who also serves as an expert witness to defend criminals who have proven to be psychopathic on both established and modern psychopathy tests.  In the latest case he is reminded of his own past on cross-examination–a past he refuses to believe.  As he re-traces his memories he learns his volunteering for psychology experiments in college resulted in six months of erased memories.  And it gets worse–his mind was altered.  Readers encounter a pair of scientists in the past, trying to hone in on those elements of the mind that shape how we think.  The protagonist encounters a lover from his college days who is also in the field, and their relationship and her relationship with her daughter and her brother (now 20 years in a coma), could dictate the fate of everyone’s future with a high-tech tuning fork “sonic screwdriver”-inspired device and one of the 40 giant, real-world synchrotrons.

Medical science and experimental psychology are the over-arching themes of Quantum Night, and fans of suspense/thrillers and science fiction’s past will see expansions of ideas first introduced in all sorts of memorable works, including Michael Crichton’s Terminal Man, Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain, David Loughery’s Dreamscape, Dr. Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, and Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report.  Can scientists discover the elements of the brain that determine how we think, and alter them to change the course of man’s future–and would none of us be the wiser?  The novel and its setting (primarily in the author’s home country of Canada) is completely believable thanks to the author’s level of knowledge and research into the elements of psychology research he pulls from.  He references 50 sources in his bibliography, so prepare for some detailed but highly readable explanations.

Quantum Night is best as a disaster story–a world is teetering on the edge of oblivion, and a small team of scientists may be able to save it.  Readers will feel the clock start ticking in the book’s final chapters.  Think The China Syndrome, The Sum of All Fears, The Day After Tomorrow, and maybe even Independence Day or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, minus the aliens.  Or pick a zombie movie.  It’s not a zombie story, but there very well may be zombies all around you.  Sawyer also knows his pop culture, so expect some good analogies along the way using some familiar character genre references.

A great book club entry for a rousing conversation, especially with a diverse group of economic, political, and social backgrounds, and a smart and thought-provoking read, Quantum Night is now available in paperback here at Amazon.

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