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Psychopaths galore

Sci-fi techno-thriller grapples with nature of consciousness

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/3/2016 (1447 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Robert J. Sawyer fans have rarely had to wait this long for a new novel. Since the Mississauga, Ont.-based author started publishing (and collecting awards) in the early 1990s, few years have lacked a full-length release. Yet, it’s been three years since Red Planet Blues, itself an expansion of a previously published short work.

Fortunately, it was worth the wait.

Quantum Night is simultaneously a breath of fresh air and a return to classic Sawyer: big ideas, relatable people and a Canadian perspective.

The story’s protagonist is a University of Manitoba professor of psychology, Jim Marchuk, who discovers a simple clinical technique for accurately diagnosing psychopaths. Interestingly, the technique is focused on the dead-eyed stare made famous by the likes of the world’s worst serial killers.

But most psychopaths don’t commit crimes — or at least not ones where they’re likely to get caught. Some flock to the corporate world, rising to management positions on the backs of betrayed colleagues; some become politicians and perhaps even world leaders. Which means the prevalence and distribution of psychopaths isn’t just a problem for homicide detectives.

While looking for psychopaths, Marchuk’s research leads him to an even more frightening figure, at least from an existential perspective: the philosopher’s zombie (or p-zeds, as Sawyer dubs them). Descartes famously devised a two-part proof of his own conscious existence: I think, therefore I am. But it’s more difficult to prove the rest of the people in the world are conscious, rather than mindless puppets or deterministic biochemical robots with no inner life.

You won’t find p-zeds in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; until recently they’ve been limited to philosophical thought experiments. But it’s a soul-quaking thought and, as the author facetiously points out, might even explain some of those unfortunate election results thoughtful voters find difficult to fathom.

This is trademark Sawyer. Though returning to a favourite topic — the nature of consciousness — he doesn’t retread any old ground here, taking an entirely new angle and approach focused on conscience, flocking behaviour, and the moral disappointment of humanity en masse. While speculating on the quantum physical structure of the soul, he’s just as interested in the legal, political and cultural implications as the philosophical and psychological ones.

Jim Marchuk is as well-read in philosophy and other topics as his academic specialty, elucidating on the ethical conundrum posed by the well-known trolley problem alongside famous psychology textbook standards such as Stanley Milgram’s shock-obedience study and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment. The good doctor also finds time to ruminate on select cases from the annals of law, including Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s 1924 "perfect murder," inspired by their readings of Nietzsche and subsequent belief they were supermen — above legal or ethical judgment.

Like most Sawyer characters, Sawyer himself, and perhaps many of his readers, the fictional Marchuk is just plain interested in everything. (Unlike the author, he never received an honourary doctor of laws degree from the University of Winnipeg for his career’s worth of stories and novels.)

The publisher is marketing this release as a techno-thriller as much as a science-fiction novel. Between riots, murder plots, repressed memories and nuclear standoffs, this is not an unearned genre categorization.

But Sawyer does it a lot smarter and deeper than is typical of such fare. And he may be the only major author who would think of setting such a world-shaking story primarily in Winnipeg and Saskatoon.

Quantum Night is a fine return to form for Sawyer. Thriller fans, science-fiction nuts, armchair philosophers, and psychology teachers alike should enjoy it.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.


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Updated on Saturday, March 5, 2016 at 9:11 AM CST: Adds photo, book jacket.

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