Sawyer explores the science of evil

There's the kind who goes along to get along, cheering the sports team and mowing the lawn.

There's the kind who feels nothing for family, friends, or the public in general unless it aids their own goals.

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There's the kind who have an active inner voice constantly empathizing and planning life's moves with care for others and for society.

Which are you? Are you a sheep, a psychopath or an intellectual?

It is a thesis that superstar science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer poses in his latest novel Quantum Night. It is an academic paper given the gift of action, adventure, romance and all the other trappings of dramatic storytelling that Sawyer has become world famous for.

He discusses the details tonight at Books & Company where he will read a bit from the new novel and discuss the concepts built into the story.

Although he quotes heavily from the latest research and classic experiments done in the field of psychology, he knocks the stuffy out it by giving the reader an affable fellow named Jim who seems to fit right into the normal society we all know and depend on, except he discovers in a wild rush that perhaps not everything going on in his life fits right in with him. He accidentally discovers a blank spot in his memory, a six-month gap that coincides precisely with a neurological experiment he took part in as a youth. Once the black hole in his mind was discovered, it was amazing - to Jim most of all - what came out of it once he started reaching around inside: everything from hockey riots to Cold War swords being suddenly drawn again.

Jim is a window through which the reader can see fascinating scenes from world history played out repeatedly over time, and extreme examples forming now in the speeches of Donald Trump that none too subtly resemble those of Adolf Hitler, the outcry over the Jian Ghomeshi criminal proceedings that sparked all manner of concepts around violence and women's inequality, and most shocking of all, the fundamentalist religious murders committed most recently in Brussels.

All of it is rooted in human mental patterns. But is it getting worse? Is it something that can be fixed? If it can't be fixed, why should we punish a psychopath for simply doing what is impossibly natural, or expect a sheep to ever achieve more than basic life functions?

"The overarching question for me was can you write a science-fiction novel about evil?" said Sawyer. "You can write fantasy novels about evil, many of them are, but I asked this of myself about four years ago without knowing the answer until I started doing the research. Was there any science of evil? Any neuroscience? Any evolutionary psychology? Any experimental psychology? What I found almost right away was yes, there is an awful lot of research about why we do conscienceless things, why we behave terribly to other human beings."

In the story, all of humanity gets categorized thanks to a breakthrough in psychological assessment. Each person is either a Q1, Q2 or Q3 and it is extremely difficult to every break free of your mental category, especially since almost no one is aware which they actually are.

"Many people have told me that since reading the book they are looking around at the people around them and mentally assigning them to the categories from the book," said Sawyer, even though the Q system was his own invention, as were other pivotal psychological points of the plot. But they are so convincing that he has been invited to present his Q system at a major brain science conference in Arizona later this year, even though the organizers are well aware of the fiction of it all.

His discussion, like the book itself, is a made up story, yes, but it is also a button Sawyer is pushing to get the reader thinking about, well, thinking. No, there is no hard set of three Q categories we each fit into, but the truth is, some people do, and all people fit somewhat into each of those categories depending on the day and the circumstance. Part of the plot touches on the two times Vancouver's NHL team lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs (1994 and 2011), triggering violent and destructive riots.

"It was never about hockey. Never about hockey," Sawyer said, but there is something buried shallowly in the human brain that gives large groups of people silent permission to go from law-abiding citizen one moment to crazed lunatic the next, when a mob starts to yell about any topic whatsoever.

Sawyer added that it was the same mentality that takes otherwise mindful people and disables their thinking enough to support Donald Trump's xenophobia and misogyny, "or lining up behind a mass murderer, like in Nazi Germany. It does happen with incredible ease. And if you asked people even just a day in advance 'are you going to get involved' they would say 'no, I'd never be like that,' but then they are. And I think we have to be extremely vigilant, because it is so easy for a whole society to turn 90 degrees or 180 degrees.

"Sometimes it is very positive. Once the rights of gay marriage came to the fore, it was astonishing how fast that came together in the States. They went from 'we'll never have this this century' to, in a matter of just a couple of years, the Supreme Court saying 'yeah, why not? what the hell.' That was a huge turn. The novel is not saying the world is poised to suddenly move in dark directions. It is poised to move in any direction and it can be nudged just as easily into a positive space as a negative space."

Sawyer is a good friend of Prince George's Virginia O'Dine and her daughter, snowboarding star Meryeta O'Dine, and follows her overseas race results. Driving home the point of the novel was how Meryeta passed through Brussels airport missing the recent terrorist attacks by a matter of hours.

Another way the big issues in the headlines around the world are easily tied back to our own context is the cross-Canada epidemic of missing and murdered women, and the even bigger epidemic of mainstream culture's apathy up until the most recent of times. This, too, factors into Quantum Night.

Sawyer said, "We had until recently a Prime Minister who, when questioned about it, said 'to be honest, it's not very high on our radar.' How can you be the leader of a country where even one little girl is raped and murdered and left on the side of the road, and say it's not very high on my radar? And the answer is, those people (aboriginal or marginalized women) are not genetically close to me. Horrific. Horrific. But it was so natural for most of Canada to just go 'meh, not my problem' but it is all of Canada's problem."

Clearly, this book is not merely an escapist sci-fi story. Anyone familiar with Sawyer's past work will know that he almost never offers a book just to narcotize the reader with wit and plot. This held true even when Hollywood got their hands on his material, when his book FlashForward was turned into a network television series starring Joseph Fiennes, John Cho, Dominic Monaghan and other notable actors. Even though they took liberties with the script, the social commentary was always at the front of the product.

"This is definitely a novel with a political and a social agenda," he said. "I wanted to arm readers with provocative ideas, and with the sources so they can learn more and go out and effect change. (He includes a comprehensive bibliography, and additional reading suggestions to explore the science behind his fiction.) Yes, I am an entertainer, but I have a larger purpose with most of my novels."

To get a closer look at those purposes, and the action and adventure he weaves it with, come to Books & Company tonight at 7 p.m. His appearance is free of charge. Books will be for sale: his latest one and many of the 23 other titles in his award-winning past.

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