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QUANTUM NIGHT is Robert J. Sawyer's 23rd science fiction novel. Throughout all those novels and all those years, Sawyer has explored any number of far ranging ideas, sometimes a good number of them in one book (some of his novels have so many different ideas in play it's sometimes tough to keep up with them all, let alone figure out how they all play into the particular story he is telling). One of his favorite topics to explore is the nature of consciousness, and Sawyer returns to that subject in a novel that reminds the reader of some of those earlier idea filled novels. From the idea a person can't be convicted of a crime because that may just be his (or her) nature, to the saying that a person's "lights are on, but no one is home" being a central theme to the book, Sawyer has the reader's head spinning from the opening pages. And it takes the thought that "you can't change human nature" and turns it completely on its ear.
Jim Marchuk has developed a technique for identifying the psychopaths in our midst. There are other techniques, but his appears to not only support the others but is 100% objective and accurate. Marchuk is called to appear as an expert witness in a murder trial; the defense claims that because the accused was "made that way" - that is, a psychopath - he cannot be found guilty of the crime (this is an idea that is not new, and appears here as a result of the mammoth amount of research that Sawyer has done for this novel. His method has determined that the defendant is indeed a psychopath; that is not in question. What started out as a cross-examination of the method turns into a cross-examination of Marchuk, the end result being that he has not only lost 6 months out of his life, but during that 6 months (he finds out later) he has done some pretty gruesome acts.
Not long after his day in court, Marchuk is contacted by an old girlfriend he had during that dark six month interval. Kayla is a quantum physicist. She and a colleague have discovered that the consciousness is quantum in nature, and that there are three states of consciousness: the philosopher's zombie or p-zed (the state where the lights are on and no one is home), the psychopath, and what the novel ends up calling the cwcs (quicks) - conscious with conscience. Each of the three is a actually a quantum state that is an indicator of a quantum entanglement in the brain (it's at this point that I think I'd better stop trying to explain the science here and let you read the novel for yourself, and after you do that take a good hard look at all the non-fiction reading that Sawyer has laid out at the end of the book, and although it might not be a bad idea to explain what a p-zed is, I don't want to take up half the review doing an info dump) and it turns out that an outside force can induce the brain to change quantum
However, there are several questions that are central to the story: why did Marchuk lose those 6 months, why is Kayla's brother in a coma, and why is there an increasing amount of violence occuring all over the world that appears to be somewhat unstoppable? The answers to the first two questions are handled relatively easily and in a straigtforward fashion. The third one is a tad more difficult to come to grips with, and the solution is one that will change the makeup of the entirety of humanity.
QUANTUM NIGHT is certainly a story of ideas, but it is more than that. It's a story of how those ideas influence the people in the story, and how it makes them think of their own as well as all of humanity's morality. These are real people, and although they are facing very earth shattering concepts and ideas that will change the way they think of each other and the rest of the human race, they react in what I feel are very realistic ways to a crisis that threatens to take down a good portion of civilization.
It's probably reasonable to talk about how the science is presented in QUANTUM NIGHT. This is the third book I've read in the last several months which contains a great deal of complex science to make the story work. The first was Kim Stanley Robinson's AURORA, and the second was Neal Stephenson's SEVENEVES. The first two novels have long stretches of infodumps - pages upon pages upon pages of infodumps. Robinson goes into gory detail telling the reader exactly why a generational starship will not work. Stephenson loves teaching his readers about orbital mechanics. Sawyer, on the other hand, weaves the science into the story so that while you're vaguely aware that you're getting a lecture in quantum mechanics (for example), it's not boring and tedious. It's part of the natural conversation of the story, and the characters react to it in realistic ways. As much as I love a good infodump, I really got tired of the orbital mechanics in SEVENEVES; my eyes were rolling so much I felt they would spin out of my
head. And while it could be argued that Sawyer treads dangerously close to the "As you know, Bob" method of the infodump, I don't think he ever crosses that line. The conversations between the characters in which the science is explained to the reader is believable and interesting.
Oh, one more thing. If you start walking down the street or sitting in your car at a stop light looking at people and wondering if they're psychopaths, p-zeds, or quicks, Sawyer has done his job. He's making you think about the world around you in different ways. And that's what good science fiction - like QUANTUM NIGHT - does.