Quantum Night, by Robert J. Sawyer (2016)

Science Fiction
Quantum Night, by Robert J. SawyerRobert J. Sawyer is arguably Canada’s best science fiction writer – winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Aurora awards, along with a lifetime achievement Aurora Award, though he is still in his 50s. A meticulous researcher, his writing pokes at the intersection of science and ethics – what if an extraterrestrial creature unintentionally broke the law? What if a soul could exist apart from a body? Should right to privacy trump technology that would virtually guarantee public safety? Thoughtful stuff. Quantum Night examines the idea of conscience and consciousness. You lose consciousness under surgery, but it comes back. What if one could also “lose” and “gain” a conscience? In this fictional world, quantum physics and neuroscience work hand in hand to make this very thing possible. The novel is set in 2020 Winnipeg, where Dr. James Marchuk is a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba, researching psychopathy. He’s also a John Stuart Mill utilitarianist (“the greatest good for the greatest number”), living a deeply principled life as a vegan and philanthropist. Early in the novel, Jim learns there is a gap in his memory, a six-month period during his undergraduate years, and that during this time he was, in fact, exhibiting psychopathic behaviour. He connects with Kayla Huron, a former girlfriend from his missing period. She is now a quantum physicist whose work on brain science neatly intersects with his – her cutting edge work at Saskatoon’s Canadian Light Source shows a clear disconnect between conscience and consciousness. Her research breaks humanity into three distinct groups – automatons who have neither conscience nor consciousness; psychopaths, who operate with conscious thought but no conscience; and a minority who are both conscious and have a conscience. Together, Kayla and Jim investigate what caused him to change from an easygoing student to psychopath, and then change again to the principled man he is now. Humming in the novel’s background is a growing restlessness in the United States that mirrors the news today. This is a smart book. The quantum science stuff tugs the reader up a few notches, trying to keep up with the sharp minds of the primary characters. Sawyer draws on current politics and news as well as real-life science to create a tense, action-filled drama with strong characters facing deeply uncomfortable choices. In so doing he challenges the reader to recognize how often we put ourselves and our needs ahead of others, no matter how much we might deny it. I liked the characters a lot, and Sawyer surprised me more than once with an unexpected twist. The ending is troubling for me, but that’s part of the deal with Sawyer – no easy answers. What an amazing and fascinating book – I expect a lot from this fine Canadian writer and he doesn’t disappoint! Winner of the 2017 Aurora Literary Award.
More discussion and reviews of this novel: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25734179


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