When Robert J. Sawyer came to Prince George last month to meet his many fans and read from his latest novel, he also gave a thumbnail writer's clinic via the Prince George Citizen.
Canada's foremost science-fiction writer, one of the most awarded and applauded sci-fi creators in the business, was here to unveil his new book Quantum Night.
It is an action-adventure story that unfolds slowly, if such a thing is possible (he proves it is) and delves into the nature of human behaviour at the neurological level.
Are psychopaths preprogrammed to kill? If so, how can a just society convict one for doing what is inevitable? Or are there psychopaths who are not fatal, but equally ruthless in business and politics? If so, who are the rest of us and how are our brains programmed to make us behave? Most importantly, is there some kind of test to determine who are programmed by nature to be mindless sheep, who are programmed to be inconsiderate lone wolves (psychopaths), and who are programmed to be free-thinking creative minds?
In Sawyer's story, there is such a test, and the results for each person are categorized respectively as Q1, Q2 and Q3.
Focusing a story's plot on groups of three is a literary pillar. It transcends writing and is itself rooted in the human mind and elements of nature. Photos and paintings and sculptures are all composed on the principle of visual thirds. There are even mathematical and philosophical equations that permeate art called The Golden Mean and The Golden Ratio that place a heavy emphasis on the presence of threes (two extremes with a moderate middle, triangulation, one-third/two-thirds focal arrangements, etc.).
In the case of Quantum Night, the three states of mentality closely resemble the three companions in the Wizard Of Oz. The scarecrow had no brain (Q1), the tin man had no heart (Q2) and the lion had no courage or, put another way, no soul (Q3). And the main character, a fellow name Jim, suddenly discovered a gap in his memory that turned out to be filled with violence and mystery he had no conscious memory of. He definitely wasn't in Kansas anymore. And the man behind the curtain was as much a surprise to Jim as it was to the reader.
It paints a vivid visual picture, and that's also part of what Quantum Night is all about. It is a book about how people think, written in such a way as to make people think. About how people think. And this spiral is the bull's eye of his writing process on this project.
"(A book) is a high-level art form, a participatory art form, in a way that a movie isn't," he said. "You have to make up the pictures in your mind. No matter how many details I describe, it is nowhere near as much information as is in a single frame of modern motion picture film," he explained, and a film has nowhere near as much vividity (because that's a word, when a writer decides so) as the mental scenes that play in the mind of a reader. "So," he said, "I expect my readers are mostly Q3s whereas a lot of reality television viewers are probably Q1."
He also wrote this story to fit between two covers, not on a silver screen. Some writers have the movie version in their own heads as they conjure the story - and Sawyer has had that happen after the fact; his book FlashForward was turned into a TV series starring Joseph Fiennes - but he is a reader's writer.
"I think Michael Crichton made a mistake in his career when, at a certain point, he started to think about how he could write treatments for Hollywood and sell them as books rather than how he could write novels," Sawyer said. "Quantum Night works really well as a novel, that's why I chose to do it in that form. It was not designed to be a teaser for Hollywood. It was designed to be, hopefully, a provocative work of fiction that people will engage with but at a very high level that you can't do in 90 minutes or two hours."
Quantum Night is centred in Canada and on Canadian themes. For the initial reader (Canadians typically get his books first, before they unroll around the world in various translations), this gives a sense of familiarity, a sense of being in the moments he describes. He isn't shy about peppering the book with the names of actual newscasters, for example, and actual political figures. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, for example, plays a central role as he ascends to the position of Prime Minister at the height of an international military crisis that draws to Canadian soil.
"I didn't ask Nenshi's permission, but I did send him an autographed copy of the book, and he tweeted that it was an amazing book," Sawyer said, and likewise didn't legally need the permission of the likes of Ian Hanomansing as long as they were depicted in their own profession doing their jobs well.
The unsavory characters are invented names carefully researched so as not to be confused with actual persons who may have their reputations inadvertently harmed.
Even that side of the story, though, Sawyer spiced with reality. One of the sinister turns of the plot is the passing of The McCharles Act, a punitive bit of fictitious legislation that triggers violence and suspicion just like McCarthyism did in 1950s United States. That draconian era was named for the chief thug of that movement, senator Joseph McCarthy. This allegorical stuff was named for a real person, too, but with much more affection.
"I actually had lunch with him today. Randy McCharles," said Sawyer. "He's one of my best friends. He runs the When Words Collide convention in Calgary and I told him I was going to name a villain in the book after him, and he was delighted."
It is all invented, of course, but the trick, said Sawyer, is build your imagined world on actuality.
"Any number of these guys in the clown car of Republican candidates could be one to do that," (enact a law like the McCharles Act).
He also used Nenshi with deliberation. The book is set in the future, but not too far in the future, so he could put armchair political science to work. The story was greatly aided by having a Muslim Prime Minister. He could have made up any old name, but with Nenshi so politically popular and young, and his name already being openly discussed as a future national leader of some kind, the reader was drawn more plausibly into the story by sticking with a "what if...?" scenario already being talked about in casual Canadian conversation.
By peppering the book with actual academic facts, including the names of real professors, real peer-reviewed papers, real research facilities like the Canadian Light Source synchrotron lab in Saskatoon, he boosts the credibility of the storyline and at the same time masks his fictional suppositions.
To help thresh the fact from the theory from the totally made up, Sawyer provided a comprehensive bibliography at the back, the topics broken down into categories to help aid the reader to get answers to the questions that will inevitably come up. In that sense, his book becomes more than a story, it becomes a fictional thesis, one you can read over and over again, or devour in one quantum night.