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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)
Robert Sawyer’s newest novel Quantum Night is an intense page turner in which a quantum physicist and an experimental psychologist team up to do the impossible. Mr. Sawyer recently spoke by phone with Andrea Johnson about the genesis of this exciting new novel.
ANDREA JOHNSON: I was fascinated to learn that in 2009 you were the first ever Writer-in-Residence at the Canadian Light Source. What can you tell us about your experience there and how it helped shape Quantum Night?
ROBERT SAWYER: First, I’ll tell you how it came about. I was on book tour, along with Robert Charles Wilson, another Hugo Award winning Canadian science fiction writer. We were in Saskatoon and the publicist asked if there was anything we wanted to see, and Bob and I both immediately agreed on the Canadian Light Source, Canada’s largest particle accelerator. And so we went there. We had a wonderful tour given by a scientist there named Jeff Cutler. At the end, Jeff expressed interested in keeping a dialog going between the science fiction community and what the CLS was doing in cutting edge science. I asked if he had ever heard of a writer-in-residence and he said “no, what’s that?” So I explained where you hire someone to come and work on site at your locale to provide mentoring services to any budding writers on the staff or from the local community and the rest of the time you subsidize the guy to be there and work on his own writing. Jeff made it work and I spent a fabulous summer in 2009 being the first ever writer-in-residence at the Canadian Light Source. There was a sort of implicit understanding that, at some point if it was appropriate, and never should I force it, to use the Canadian Light Source in one of my books. And when it came time to write Quantum Night, I thought to myself “I need a particle accelerator!”, and the Canadian Light Source became an absolutely key setting for the novel Quantum Night.
AJ: I like to describe your books as informative science fiction, because the characters always talk through their ideas and theories and discoveries, crossing a multitude of disciplines. As a writer dealing with high concept and complex ideas, how do you go about presenting those in such a compelling manner to a casual reader such as myself, who may not have a science background?
RS: Thank you for saying that. I want to observe that when science fiction started that was the basis of the genre—people using real science in the stories, and it would be talked about. It’s only really, in the last few decades, that so much of science fiction has become mindless escapism, or space opera, or military SF. It doesn’t really have any scientific underpinnings to it. So I’m glad that you find what I do informative and interesting. What astonishes me, and frankly, disappoints me as a reader of science fiction is how few and far between are the authors who are doing what I’m doing these days.
Now to your question, “how do you do it,” the answer is always to be excited about science. I’m excited about it. That excitement has to be palpable in whatever descriptions I write. The idea that science is boring or mind-numbing is something that no scientist thinks when they go to work in the morning. They are absolutely thrilled by what they do.
Prior to being a science fiction writer, I was a minor science journalist. I made a good hunk of my money writing science and technology journalism. It’s like being a sports reporter. You don’t have to be an athlete to be a sports reporter, and in fact very few of them are. You simply have to be caught up in the excitement of the game and be able to communicate that vividly to an audience who is also not athletic. They are watching the game at home. It’s really that exact same skill set.
My characters, who are scientists, are infectious about their enthusiasm, and as a science fiction writer or even as a science journalist, it is my job to infect you with their enthusiasm.
AJ: What unexpected and interesting tidbits did you come across while researching for Quantum Night?
RS: Quantum Night is in large measure about psychopathy, the science of studying psychopaths. We have such an ingrained public perception of what a psychopath is—either from real life, John Wayne Gacy or [Canadian serial killer] Paul Bernado, or from fiction—Norman Bates, Dexter Morgan, Hannibal Lechter. So this perception that psychopaths are this tiny percentage of the population who are easy to identify once you catch them because there is a trail of dead bodies behind them, it’s completely fallacious. That was a revelation for me, that psychopaths, who are simply entities utterly devoid of empathy, are ubiquitous. They are out there in a profusion that would be mind-numbing to most people.
AJ: That’s pretty terrifying!
RS: It’s terrifying to think that there is an enormous number of people out there who really are one hundred percent in it just for themselves, and are indifferent. They aren’t necessarily malicious, but utterly indifferent to the impact of their actions on other people. The ideal corporate CEO is in many ways, a psychopath—a man or a woman who can say “I can shut down a factory and put five thousand people out of work the week before Christmas,” and go home and watch the ballgame on TV and feel not one compunction about what they’ve done. The ideal surgeon is a psychopath. A surgeon has to be the active agent in cutting open your chest, splitting your ribs, and rummage around amongst your internal organs and sewing them up or carving them out without for one second feeling the ingrained wincing that your or I would feel. They need to be utterly devoid of empathy.
AJ: None of the readers who read this interview will ever want to go in for surgery again.
RS: They may not want to. I am a big fan of saying watch out for complete general anesthesia, but that’s a separate issue that we can talk about in a second. But in terms of having a psychopath as a surgeon—what psychopaths want out of life is lots of money, high status, to be in control, they want to have sway over people’s lives. You can do that by being a serial killer who tortures and murders innocent children, you can also do that by being a pro-social psychopath. A surgeon is a perfect example. The last thing you want is someone who is in there who has to give you a heart bypass surgery and they are hesitating and wincing and recoiling with every cut.
AJ: You had mentioned the dangers of going under general anesthesia?
RS: We know very little about how general anesthesia works. This isn’t something we’ve had for thousands of years, this is very new. To reliably be able to shut off consciousness, knowing that it will return, is very new. Any one of us can shut off consciousness—I can hit you with a rock and knock you out, and maybe you’re going to wake up and maybe you’re going to die. The anesthesiologist is a very skilled technician who says “the surgeon says you need to be out for 4 hours, I can put you out for 4 hours and 15 minutes” and you’ll wake up. Almost guaranteed. It fascinates me.
I talk a great deal about this in Quantum Night and in other novels about the research into the quantum nature of consciousness that’s been done by Roger Penrose, a collaborator with Stephen Hawking, and Penrose’s collaborator Stuart Hameroff. Stuart is an anesthesiologist, he teaches at University of Arizona, Tucson. He knew, as any anesthesiologist does, that these chemicals applied in this way will reliably shut down consciousness and it will eventually boot back up again. But nobody really understood the mechanism, we simply know that the drugs are efficacious without knowing precisely what it is that the drugs are doing. He got very curious about this, and it was his curiosity about the fundamental nature of consciousness that led to him hooking up with quantum physicist Roger Penrose, who likewise thought that there were mathematical arguments for why consciousness had to be quantum mechanical. I draw upon that for basis of the multi-tiered quantum levels of consciousness that I propose in Quantum Night.
AJ: We’re going to have to dance around some plot points in the novel for this next question so as not to spoil anything, but I’m confident we can do it. There’s a short but incredibly important scene near the end of Quantum Night where Jim mentions a line from Battlestar Galactica. He quotes a couple of lines, but one of them is “so say we all.” Is our modern society designed around or even inadvertently designed around of having a never-ending supply of folks who … to use a non-spoilery term, folks who simply couldn’t care less?
RS: Yes, I think so. The paragraph in the novel says BSG’s oft-repeated mantra “so say we all,” which I translated as “fit in or fuck off” quoting what somebody else had been told when they had joined a police force.
The reality is, and this is a fundamental premise of Quantum Night, is that the vast majority of people in the real world are easily able to be led. They just go with the prevailing current. If I see the guy on my left saying “so say we all,” the guy on my right saying “so say we all,” the guy in front, the guy behind me, it’s the path of least resistance for me to say it as well. The path that requires the least amount of thought is to simply fall in line, and so say we all. And I do think that that has been the downfall, over and over again of civilization.
AJ: From there, it’s a slippery slope to mob mentality, which also comes into play in the last third of Quantum Night.
RS: Absolutely. It is demonstrably true that individuals who would never pickpocket or smash a window or sexually assault, when put into a sufficiently large crowd where those things are going on, start doing those things. Not everybody! But a large number of people do. It is clearly a part of the human psyche that when we are in a large group we will do things that we would never do on our own. And Quantum Night tries to explore the underlying science behind why that’s the case.
AJ: And also a possible solution of how to let a society grow past that. But now we’re getting into spoilers!
RS: Whenever I write a novel, I start first with a topic, and then I find a theme, and then I develop character and theme. The topic of this book was The Science of Evil. I asked myself is there any science of evil? Fantasy writers talk about evil all the time, but they do in the sense that evil is a mystical force or supernatural power, or that it’s substantiated and personified in specific beings such as demons or Lucifer, or what have you. Star Wars, for all of its cosplaying as science fiction, is fantasy. There is a good force, and there is a dark, an evil force, there are good guys and bad guys. But is there any science of evil that a science fiction writer could write about? As soon as I asked the question of Google, which is the oracle we all use these days, the answer was pages and pages of hits. There’s been tons of research into why evil exists. Not as a mystical force, but why people will do horrendous things to other people. And out of that research I came up with my theme, which is this: The most pernicious lie the human race has ever told itself is that you cannot change human nature.
AJ: Wow. That is a very heavy sentence right there.
RS: It is. And you’ll see the entirety of Quantum Night evolves from that one sentence.
AJ: Do you have any new or current projects that you can tell us about?
RS: I’ve spent most of the last two years developing a TV series. Along with my three partners, a producer, a director, and a story editor, we have sold the TV series to BellMedia, which is the parent company of CTV and our science fiction specialty channel Space. We’re having a blast, we will be looking for a US partner, we anticipate we’re not going to have much difficulty finding one. It’s an all-new, Sawyer science fiction property, and we’re hoping to be on the air in the fall of 2018.
AJ: That’s so exciting!
RS: Yeah! It’s been a lot of fun! As they say on Enterprise, “it’s been a long road getting from there to here,” but we’re just about to launch into full-fledged pre-production, and it’s very, very exciting.
AJ: It was a pleasure getting to interview you.
RS: Thank you.