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Bookends: Is there a biological basis for evil? January 17, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.

Bookends: Is there a biological basis for evil?

By Dan Davidson

quantum-nightMay 22, 2016

– 1058 words –


Quantum Night

By Robert J. Sawyer


351 pages



When experimental psychologist Jim Marchuk develops a foolproof method for detecting whether or not a person is a psychopath, it never occurs to him that there might actually be more to it than he suspects. Initially, he is surprised to be blindsided while testifying in a court case in Atlanta. He is there to demonstrate that a prisoner should be incarcerated rather than executed because his psychopathic tendencies meant there were times when he could not keep from being violent.

Under cross examination, Marchuk discovers that he himself has no memory of about 6 months of his life, a time when he would have learned certain revelations about his grandfather, and destroyed what might have become a lifetime partnership with a woman he had been dating at the time.

Seeking to uncover the reason for his apparent amnesia, Marchuk goes to his university mentor, Menno Warkentin, at the University of Manitoba, where they both are professors. Theirs is a complicated relationship; in fact Marchuk literally has no idea how complicated it actually is.

As he continues to explore the notion of consciousness in a series of classroom scenes that are intercut with the developing story, he is contacted by Kayla Huron, that former girlfriend, who happens to be working in some of the same areas that he is – the nature of consciousness – but from a totally different area of science. He’s been examining observable physical behavior. She’s been looking at quantum state measurements of brain activity.

She’s discovered that there are three quantum states of mental awareness. Without going into too much detail, there are people who have one quantum node activated. These are people who are easily led and influenced and don’t seem to have the internal monologue that characterizes a lot of human mental activity. Here they are referred to as philosophical zombies, or p-zeds, and this state of mind becomes an explanation for why ordinary people sometimes do extraordinarily horrible things.

Another subset of humanity has two nodes activated. These people are referred to as psychopaths. Not all of them are vicious killers, but they are extremely competitive, subject to emotional outbursts and potentially dangerous as they don’t really have much in the way of a conscience. They are able to dominate and influence p-zeds.

The third mental state features a three node activation that has both the internal monologue and a conscience. This minority group has produced the best versions of humanity over the ages.

For the sake of narrative convenience, these three states are mostly referred to a Q1, Q2 and Q3. As the story moves on we discover that Marchuk has been in all three states at various times and that the three variants form long term memories in different ways, which is why some of his are missing and others are altered. We also find that the natural human tendency to make our lives into coherent narratives has caused him to manufacture some events that didn’t actually happen to him.

This is one of those books where there’s quite a bit of what would be called “talking heads” material in a TV show. I suspect that following some of it in detail would require you to read a lot of the nine pages of reference material that Sawyer has listed at the back of the book. For one reason or another – mostly due to family loses – the author, who usually produces a book a year, has been three years between books and has apparently been doing a lot of research.

The book gets internationally complicated when it moves beyond the personal to world affairs. Completed before the last federal election, Sawyer predicted the Liberal win with Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister, and predicted one or two follow-up wins, but a final non-confidence vote defeat of an minority government further down the line. The NDP finally come to power under the leadership of Prime Minister Naheed Nenshi.

This proves to be a real problem for the current President of the United States, a Trump-like character named Quinton Carroway, who constantly refers to the new Prime Minister as a Socialist and a Muslim.

About this time, the kinds of tensions that have led to massive sports related riots in various parts of the world and even in Canada begin to ramp up. Just what causes this increase in street riots, mayhem and civil unrest is not entirely clear but Marchuk, Huron and another scientist begin to theorize that it is partially connected with the fact that the leaders of the world’s two most powerful nations are Q2 individuals and that their example is influencing the p-zeds that make up the bulk of the word’s population.

As the situation in Canada deteriorates, Carroway uses this as an excuse to send in the troops and annex what he considers to be the northern territories of America. Vladimir Putin (another Q2, of course) objects to this and we end up with a kind of northern version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one which can only be averted by causing these two Q2 leaders to change their minds.

There is a way that this can be done, but I’ll leave it for you to read the book and find out what happens.

This is a novel that works of several different levels, and if some of it is a bit didactic, those passages seem to me to be necessary to advance the character development and the plots. I think I enjoyed Marchuk’s personal development (this is largely a first-person narrative) over the social and international crisis plotlines, but it all worked together.

Sawyer has been writing books dealing with identity and intelligence for some time now, Elements of this one reminded me a little of Triggers, while Rollback, Mindscan, parts of Red Planet Blues and some of the themes in the WWW Trilogy examined these ideas in different ways.

I teased this original Star Trek devotee that he gave his hero that first name just so he could have people (doctors, for the most part) argue with him by saying “Damn it, Jim” a few times. He denies it, but I like my theory.





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