Finally! Yes, it finally happened. I finally read a Robert J. Sawyer book that I really liked. I cannot impress upon you strongly enough how frustrating this authorial quandary had become for me. Robert J. Sawyer, arguably the greatest science fiction writer in Canadian history, was my personal literary Kryptonite. No other author currently walks this earth whose work I wished to love more and yet with each book of his I read, it seemed ever more unlikely this would happen.
Admittedly, this predicament of mine is an odd one. Who laments not liking something? Typically we boast of such a fact as any perusal of trending Twitter hashtags can confirm while those rarified few among us with greater maturity simply remain silent rather than rant. I’d like to think I’m part of this latter troupe, but the evidence suggests I too often slip into the former. It’s perhaps even stranger to mourn the disliking of an author, especially one who, though successful, is hardly a household name. There are many other authors, some of substantial stature, whose writing I’m not fond of and I make nothing of it. This is especially true within the confines of the science fiction genre. I don’t find Philip K. Dick’s writing terribly enjoyable despite his standing as a demigod in the pantheons of science fiction writing, but my sleep remains unperturbed by it nor do I frantically continue reading his work desperately hoping one story will finally resonate with me. With Sawyer, I do.
I really REALLY want to be a fan of Robert J. Sawyer
A little over a year ago my exasperation in this matter impelled me to concoct a little experiment in hopes of discovering the elusive Sawyer novel I loved. I tweeted Robert directly and asked him, “If you had one chance to save your life by making a lifelong fan, which of your books would you recommend to read?” Simple enough and much to my delight, he responded with Wake, the first volume of his well-regarded WWW (Wake/Watch/Wonder) trilogy. Unfortunately, my quaint little experiment backfired when I ended up disliking Wake even more than his other books I’d previously read. Rather than deliver me from Canadian sci fi exile, my experiment managed to exacerbate my predicament.
I was left with but one conclusion to draw. I’m not a fan of Robert J. Sawyer. And while that may not seem like a particularly big deal to many of you, it very much is to me because I really, REALLY wanted to be one. Yes because he writes science fiction and is impressively successful at it (one of only eight writers in history, and only Canadian, to win all three major Science Fiction writing awards). Yes because he’s a wildly intelligent author exceptionally skilled at incorporating complex science and contentious philosophy in accessible fiction (I’ve often thought he’d make a fantastic non-fiction writer). And yes because he’s Canadian and brazenly immerses his novels in Canadiana from characters to settings to history, culture, and humour (he even mentions my small hometown in one of his books). But mostly because we share a mutual friend and what fan wouldn’t give their mint condition, vintage Star Trek lunch box to have access to an idol through a friend?
And by friend I don’t mean my neighbour’s daughter’s soccer teammate’s cousin’s mother who was an extra in a potato chip commercial with Brad Pitt thirty years ago, before he was famous, and who gave her his number between takes and still has it in a keepsake box in her bedroom closet. Rather this is a good friend of mine who not only invited me to her wedding but is close enough to Robert J. Sawyer that she invited him to the very same wedding. I even met him and spoke to him there which, for the type of superfan I desperately wish to become, was a very squeal-worthy experience. Or it would have been had I avoided the stereotypical indignities well known to befall the nervous devotee in the presence of their hero.
Robert J. Sawyer may be a somewhat obscure celebrity but a celebrity he nonetheless is and he was a complete stranger to me and wanton conversation initiation with strangers has never been my forte. So after swallowing some liquid courage (thank you toonie bar) and thirty minutes of second-guessing I went over to say hello and essentially boast that I knew who he was because hey, what successful author doesn’t revel in having a middle-aged man recognize him at a wedding reception. It’s probably the kind of moment that inspired his desire to be a writer in the first place. But as I stood there making horrible small talk I realized that it would be a lot easier if I was able to gush about how great his books are and how much I love them and, you know, do an honest-to-god fanboy routine. All I had was, “Nice to meet you. I know you’re a famous writer but I don’t much care for your work. Isn’t it cool we have a friend in common?” That kind of limits a conversation and certainly isn’t the springboard to new friendship.
I finally hit double zero!
Despite that fleeting awkward encounter and my persistent reading frustration, I continued to follow Robert on social media. His books haven’t tickled my fancy but he is undoubtedly an interesting person with worthy input on current events and writing. Besides, I continue to grasp at the last remaining frayed thread of hope that things will change between me and his books. So when his latest release, Quantum Night, hit the bookshelves this March, on my birthday no less (hello Karma), I steeled my mettle, once again placed my bet on double zero, and took another spin on the roulette wheel of Robert J. Sawyer fiction. And wouldn’t you know it, that damned little ball popped and bounced and skittered around as it had so many times previously before finally coming to rest in that elusive green pocket.
Quantum Night, Robert J. Sawyer’s twenty-third novel, is everything readers have come to expect in a Sawyer book and yet miraculously this one truly resonated with me. I have no idea why that is but I am elated, and relieved. Subject matter no doubt played a significant role in my enjoyment of this novel. At its core, this book is about psychopathy; who and how many among us are psychopaths. Not only did I enjoy reading this story about the nature of consciousness and conscience but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished reading it three weeks ago. In my mind, no greater compliment can be paid a book than having it ruminate in your mind for weeks afterward. This ongoing meditation has been encouraged in no small part by the thorough bibliography of non-fiction research material included at the end of the novel. I have already read three of these recommended books and found them illuminating and welcome compliments to Quantum Night.
This is also subject matter in which many Canadian academics not only excel, but are at the forefront of study, so it should come as no surprise that Quantum Night is once again filled with wonderful Canadiana. Set in Winnipeg and Saskatoon, the book delves into the life of Utilitarian psychology professor at the University of Manitoba, James Marchuk, who has developed a foolproof test for psychopathy. He is also missing six months of his life from his university student days and it wasn’t the result of a first-time-living-away-from-home drunken binge like the rest of us. Marchuk’s quest to determine what happened leads to his reuniting with a former girlfriend from those missing months, Kayla Huron, a quantum physicist who has discovered another method for not only determining psychopathy but also exposing philosopher zombies (normal looking and acting human beings with no conscious experience).
Amongst the fascinating hard science deftly shared (taught is a more accurate description of what Sawyer does) as the quickly paced mystery unfolds, you’ll find political intrigue made all the more believable and unsettling in light of Donald Trump’s quest for the presidency of the United States. A better example of life imitating art I’ve rarely seen. There’s also a good deal of amusing speculation regarding Canadian politics that is surprisingly plausible in light of last year’s election, though I can’t help but think Sawyer was secretly praying for a Liberal minority rather than the majority Trudeau ended up with. The result is a fulfilling mix of science, conjecture, and whimsy proudly draped in the Maple Leaf that will leave your heart satisfied and your brain churning.
A plot twist that worked?
The characters are compelling and their conversations, often used to explore the science behind the story, are informative and engaging without sounding like a first year university lecture. For most of the book the plot moves along at an enjoyable pace while avoiding the temptation to devolve into mindless blockbuster shenanigans. There was even one minor but rewarding plot twist involving a major character that completely caught me by surprise, an unexpected pleasure I rarely experience in any book these days.
That being said, Quantum Night is not without fault. The climax felt rushed and a bit forced to me. I felt the dilemma confronting the main characters had alternative resolutions not considered by these supposedly intelligent people. I thought the concept of a Prime Minister Nenshi turned psychopath was an opportunity for dark comedy sadly ignored as the story came to a close. And I wasn’t sure I understood the science behind using the synchrotron to change the quantum superposition of everyone on the planet. But I’m getting nitpicky. Willing suspension of disbelief has never been my strong point and I nag at stuff like this with everything I read.
Ultimately, this is a terrific book and well worth your time to read. I am happy to give Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I am also damn thrilled to finally have this Sawyer monkey off my back and if I’m ever fortunate enough to meet the man in person again, I’ll be yacking his ear off about psychopaths and p-zeds for hours. Assuming he’d want to … and doesn’t have a quantum tuning fork hidden away in his pocket waiting for my eyes to stray at which point he swiftly adjusts my superposition from Q3 to Q1 enabling the conversation to quickly abate and enable his escape. Until then, I think I’ll view my liking this book as a good omen and find myself some more Robert J. Sawyer books to read.
Claire Tate says
I don’t like Robert Sawyer. He seems too much of a geek. He is my worst nightmare. I prefer higher quality science fiction. He just seems to spam out rubbish.
Rubbish is a bit harsh. Robert is very smart and his books are impeccably researched. They embody there essence of “science” in fiction. Perhaps some of us just prefer the fiction part more and with it the magic and fantasy of space opera style sci fi writing?
I think the point of the book is to have a magic Canadian hockey puck save the world. This is similar to the part in the Neanderthal Parallax where character says Neanderthals are to homosapiens as Canada is to the U.S.
He definitely is optimistic about Canadians. I love that he includes so much Canada in his writing but I don’t agree that we’re quite so universally wonderful. When Doug Ford ends up his premier in a few months time his rose perception might tarnish a bit.