Some background. Robert J Sawyer was one of my favorite science-fiction authors back in the day. The Terminal Experiment will probably end up a minor classic (in Canada at least), Flashforward is about 80% great, Illegal Alien, Calculating God and Factoring Humanity are all chock full of interesting questions. Even The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, which has not exactly aged well as anthropology has expanded the picture on how Neanderthals likely lived, is a favorite. But. Something’s changed, and maybe it’s me but it’s definitely at least a little bit Sawyer.
Quantum Night is about a psychology professor by the name of Jim Marchuk, who happens to have discovered a foolproof test for identifying psychopathy–that will no doubt be confused for a real thing by enough people that everyone who stares too long will suddenly be a psycho–who discovers he can’t remember anything from the first six months of 2001. While trying to find out what’s occurred, he hooks up with his old girlfriend from the time, a quantum physicist who happens to have identified a quantum mechanical basis for consciousness and, instead of publishing the fuck out of that discovery, decides to look up her old boyfriend mostly because we wouldn’t have a book if these two didn’t hook up.
The book tries to be an exploration of consciousness and so on and it, you know, it tries. But it fails. Within the book’s world, you’ve got three different kinds of people. The first kind–about four billion out of seven billion people–are philosophical zombies (enjoy that rabbit hole, guys, and welcome to believing you might live in the Matrix) who are somehow in Sawyer’s portrayal just straight up not conscious in any meaningful way, which is a problem we’ll get to in a minute. The second kind–two billion out of seven–are psychopaths, and the remaining one billion are CWCs–“quicks”–, people who are “conscious with conscience” (psychopaths only have that first C). I’ll skip the spoilers, but presumably it’s clear to everybody that it’s probably not great if most of the world is made up of psychopaths and a bunch of malleable zombies they can manipulate freely, so our lovely protagonist eventually decides to do something about that.
But you know when he decides to do something about it? At the end. Which is the problem. This book is like the first third of a possibly great science fiction novel, but all Sawyer does here is set up some pins. He doesn’t bother to knock them down. What does the world look like where psychopaths and zombies rule? Well, pretty much like the world right now but filtered through an awkward caricature of American conservatism that is nevertheless intended seriously. What does the world look like when you change that? Well, apparently Putin decides not to destroy the world, and that’s about as far as we get. He bails before actually following through on the compelling “what if” at the center of his story, instead settling on a small scale investigation of what it might be like to transition through these kinds of consciouness and know it.
But that’s cool, right? There’s nothing wrong with small scale. Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment (which Saywer bizarrely references in this book as part of a university course circa 2001) was very much that–a man discovers evidence for the existence of a soul, and while its global impact is somewhat examined, the bulk of that story is about the subsequent creation of computer simulations of the protagonist’s mind to simulate being something like a spirit, being immortal, and (natch) an unmodified control. It’s a pretty great story, that manages to dig deep without necessarily going big. So clearly Sawyer can do this.
Here, though, he doesn’t. When POV characters (and here, again, a problem–Sawyer seems to simply use a POV based on convenience, so some are throwaway one-offs that just seem lazy) transition between states, it’s virtually pointless. Ever wonder what it might be like to become a psychopath? According to Sawyer, let’s ignore all the evidence for most psychopaths being largely harmless despite a few distasteful personality traits–you’re actually going to have exhibited the MacDonald Triad, and you’re actually going to go off and be a murderer. Even best case, you’re just going to run off and fuck the first hot chick you see and stop giving to charity just because. You immediately become an obvious, and massive, asshole. Besides the fact that it’s inaccurate to what we know about actual psychopaths, it’s boring. Oh, sure, it’s briefly exciting because if you have a character committing murder it’s at least active, but it brings nothing new to the table. The perspective of a psychopath who remembers having a conscience is roughly equivalent to everything Buffy’s Angelus says when he talks about his ensouled counterpart Angel–man that guy’s a boring killjoy. Glad I’m free of that. Awesome, really explored some new territory there.
It’s worst with the philosophical zombies, though. The most important thing to note here is that, while the initial presumption is that they do not possess any meaningful consciousness and are largely just reacting to stimulus in an ultimately simplistic call and response kind of way, the premise of the novel explicitly identifies their “consciousness” with those of the psychopaths and quicks. They’re not at all conscious, except for how the story suggests there’s something else going on there. Everyone’s consciousness is entangled together, even these people who, when we receive their point of view, are simply written as BS input/output. It’s a copout, a sidestepping of a pretty obvious implication of your own story–they’re not conscious, but all consciousness is tied up with them? That means something, or should, except here it serves simply as a minor hurdle to the main character’s decision to play god.
Anyway, basically, if you’re looking for an interesting, well-written, mindbending look at what consciousness is, and what it might mean to not be all that sentient, don’t read this. There’s no follow through, and the small scale stuff is paint by numbers. Look up Peter Watts and give yourself a headache plowing through the mindfuck that is Blindsight. I’ll recommend any Robert J. Sawyer from the Neanderthal Parallax on back, though. Maybe he’ll shake the funk and pedantry (did you know the year 2000 wasn’t the real beginning of the millennium? As of this book, Robert J Sawyer would still like you all to know that he does) and get back to being a pretty solid sci-fi author. He’s never going to be batting at Clarke and Asimov levels, but he was always a good go-to. Not so much lately.