Quantum Night

(First published in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, 14 Mar 2016.)

A book by Robert J. Sawyer is always about something. His latest, Quantum Night, mines much of the same vein as his earlier work; like his next-to-last book, Triggers (2012), it’s concerned with the relationship between quantum mechanics and consciousness. It’s a fast-paced thriller in which a psychologist and a physicist must take their discovery about the nature of human consciousness and use it to save the world from self-destruction. But it goes down some very dark paths. It asks: What makes some people ethical and others psychopaths? Why do ordinary people behave in awful ways? These are questions that vex our times, as we grapple with everything from psychopathic corporate executives to the Holocaust. The answers Quantum Night comes up with are unsettling, and makes this quite possibly Sawyer’s most controversial novel to date, and probably his most disturbing.


The year is 2020: Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has just been elected prime minister; the U.S. seems determined to rip itself apart in racially motivated violence; and the ultra-conservative U.S. president is making very menacing noises in Canada’s direction. Against that backdrop, James Marchuk, a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba, has developed a physical test for detecting psychopaths. A six-month gap in his memories is revealed when his expert testimony goes south on the witness stand; in trying to recover those memories, he discovers that he had been a test subject in brain-wave research conducted by his mentor, retired psychologist Menno Warkentin. In the course of that research, Warkentin discovered that a surprising number of people were philosopher’s zombies (or “p-zeds,” to use the book’s shorthand). Normally a fiction used in philosophical thought experiments, a philosopher’s zombie describes someone who is externally indistinguishable from a human being but is not conscious or sentient; in this book Sawyer takes them to mean people with no “inner voice”—obedient, compliant, prone to flocking behaviour.

Meanwhile, physicist Kayla Huron has discovered that having a consciousness or a conscience is a matter of quantum mechanics. P-zeds (who have no consciousness), psychopaths (who have no conscience) and “quicks” (who have both) exist in a 4:2:1 ratio, which means not only that two out of seven people on the planet are psychopaths (the usual estimate is one out of a hundred), but also that four out of seven are philosopher’s zombies. What Sawyer imagines is a quantum-mechanical explanation for the Milgram experiments: People obey horrific orders because they’re p-zeds and the ones giving orders are psychopaths.

One does not read Sawyer for prose style (serviceable) or characterization (earnest), but for ideas: Those Quantum Night has in spades, and delivers at a thriller’s pace. The pieces of the puzzle that seemed disparate at the book’s beginning—the unstable political situation, Marchuk’s, Huron’s and Warkentin’s research, even Marchuk’s utilitarian philosophy—now coalesce and cohere. Marchuk and Huron must not only unravel the quantum-mechanical puzzle of human consciousness and its ramifications, but apply it to the rapidly deteriorating global situation, for Marchuk has determined that the fingers hovering over the button belong to psychopaths.

The “quick” protagonists soon catch themselves treating their p-zed colleagues and family members as less than fully human; Marchuk, whose ethics demand that he maximize the well-being of all sentient beings, realizes that if news were to get out that more than four billion human beings were p-zeds, they would be mistreated by psychopaths and quicks alike. But, however careful Marchuk is to consider the fate of his fellow human beings whatever their quantum state, their status is nevertheless couched in hierarchical terms, particularly when they discover a method to change a person’s quantum state. Adding a superpositioned electron is fairly explicitly seen as levelling up, becoming a quick as the fulfillment of human potential.

The ability to transform psychopaths or p-zeds into quicks is an ethical problem, but like many thought experiments it’s reductionist. So is Sawyer’s reduction of human types to three quantum states that are portrayed without much nuance. His psychopaths, for example, are caricatures. Sawyer’s choice of a near-future setting and recognizable political figures, with no allegorical wrapping paper to cover up the simplifications, make that reductionism much more apparent. It’s hard to talk about verisimilitude when so much of it is literally real. Using so many real details is a valid aesthetic choice, but not necessarily the correct one in this case.

It also risks being too persuasive by accident. Arthur Koestler’s 1940 anti-Stalinist novel Darkness at Noon reportedly portrayed its antagonists so vividly that it accidentally converted some readers to Communism. I wonder whether readers might take the wrong lessons from Quantum Night in a similar fashion, and adopt the idea of a quantum-mechanical Sorting Hat to their everyday life. Science fiction fans have done that before, treating everything from Stranger in a Strange Land to Kushiel’s Dart as a guide to life, and not always in ways the author expected. (“Fans are slans!”) It’s not hard to imagine readers dismissing every problematic person in their lives as a p-zed or a psychopath, because I’ve caught myself doing it once or twice since reading Quantum Night. That’s a testament to the book’s thought-provoking nature, but also the volatile nature of the thoughts being provoked.

Make no mistake, Quantum Night is a book with deeply disturbing implications. It’s the kind of book that gets put onto indexes and gets its author accused of corrupting the nation’s youth. It’s the most sociopathic science fiction novel I’ve read since John Barnes’s Kaleidoscope Century. Quantum Night is either a moral book about morally reprehensible things, or a morally reprehensible book about morality. The author intended the former; it remains to be seen whether the effect is the latter.

Quantum Night
by Robert J. Sawyer
Ace/Viking, 1 March 2016
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