by Robert J. Sawyer
Review by Sam Lubell
Ace Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: B00X59368Q
Date: 01 March 2016
Quantum Night is a novel of thought provoking idea-driven psychological science fiction. The book has a slow start, taking a long time to set everything up with quite a bit of literal lecturing. After that, the reader's patience begins to be rewarded with interesting revelations leading to a nice moral dilemma driving the ending. Sawyer is concerned with what makes us who we are and how easily this could be changed.
The book opens in 2020 with Canadian professor of psychology James Marchuk, who has invented a new way of detecting psychopaths, appearing as an expert witness for the defense in a Georgia trial of a torturer. Not all psychopaths are crazed killers; the term includes many people who are self-centered and uncaring of others' feelings. At the trial the prosecution attacks Jim, asking if his theory about psychopaths is just a way of justifying his grandfather's actions as a Nazi concentration camp guard, which had been exposed in 2001. Jim is shocked that he has no memory of this.
Jim discovers that this memory loss includes everything from the first six months of 2001. So when contacted by Kayla Huron, his ex-girlfriend during that time, he arranges a meeting that turns into a rekindling of their relationship. She works on the quantum mechanics of consciousness and has developed a completely different test for psychopathy based on quantum-superposition states.
Combining Jim's experiences with Kayla's research, they conclude that 60% of people are philosopher's zombies (p-zeds), people who live their lives as blindly obedient followers without paying attention to anything beyond the routine. Another 30% are psychopaths who do have an inner voice but no empathy, and just 10% have consciousness with conscience. When growing tensions between Canada and a more conservative Christian United States place the world at risk, the two characters are faced with a moral dilemma that creates the book's powerful conclusion.
Jim is an unusual character. A committed utilitarian, he likes to say he walks the walk. He contributes a substantial amount to charity each year, refuses to eat meat, and when he learned that his wife was pregnant with a Down's Syndrome child, urged her to have an abortion. Still, for all the book's stress on the mind and psychological states, Jim and Kayla are really the only fully developed characters.
Near future stories run the risk of being quickly outdated. I do find it difficult to believe that the U.S. would become a nation of religious zealots in just four years from now. Another major flaw is the large coincidence that has Kayla involved in similar research, having a brother who happened to participate in the same experiment as Jim, and working for an organization that had exactly the right equipment for the ending (although the last concern is somewhat assuaged by the fact that the organization is real and does in fact have the equipment described).
Quantum Night is a very philosophical cerebral novel. Most of the book, especially the first third, consists of characters talking to each other. Sawyer tries to vary the exposition by delivering it through the professor's lectures, a trial, flashbacks, and conversation. The mystery of what happened in Jim's past does offer some forward momentum and there is some thrill in the discovery of the different states of consciousness.
Readers who enjoy stories of self-discovery or have an interest in the science of the mind will find Quantum Night an intriguing thought experiment well worth the slow build-up and lack of action. P-zeds and readers looking for physical adventure will probably be better off with a different book. It is worth noting that the book is complete in itself.