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Sawyer questions the nature of consciousness

Award-winning Canadian sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer's books have taken readers to far-flung worlds and parallel universes.
The cover of Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer is seen in a handout image.

Award-winning Canadian sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer's books have taken readers to far-flung worlds and parallel universes.

But in Quantum Night, released today, Sawyer delves into the dark and forbidding frontiers of human consciousness and morality.

Set in 2020, the world of Quantum Night is an all-too-realistic vision of the future set against the backdrop of escalating geopolitical and racial tensions. A world in which Canada could become the front line in a global conflict between superpowers.

Jim Marchuk is an experimental psychologist at the University of Manitoba who has developed a fool-proof method of identifying psychopaths.

But when he is asked to appear as an expert witness in the murder trial of a Georgia prison guard, the first legal test of his methodology, a brutal cross-examination by the prosecutor reveals Marchuk is missing a chunk of his memories -including a disturbing revelation about his own family history.

Back in Canada, Marchuk begins trying to piece together the missing time in his memory: the first six months of the year 2001, when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Manitoba.

When Kayla Huron, a woman he dated during the missing months, contacts him out of the blue looking to reconnect, he jumps at the chance in hopes of filling in the blanks. Huron, a physicist working at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatoon, has also been studying the human mind - but from a quantum physics perspective.

What Huron tells Marchuk about his past shakes him to his core, and raises further questions about what exactly happened to him during the missing time frame.

What they will eventually discover will make them question everything they thought they knew about human nature.

Quantum Night is literally a psychological thriller, and Sawyer builds heavily on the real-world research of psychologists including Robert Hare (author of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist) and Philip Zimbardo (creator of the infamous Stanford prison experiments).

As a result, Sawyer is forced to do a fair amount of exposition to get the lay reader up to speed so they can understand the importance of the protagonists' discoveries.

However, the author finds a way to boil the complexity of quantum physics, psychological research and philosophical hypothesis down to their basics so the average reader can digest them. That said, Quantum Night isn't an action-packed page-turner. It's a slow-burn thriller that gently eases up the heat until it's too late to jump out of the pot - one that will likely leave the reader thinking about it long after they've read the final page.

Readers with even a casual interest in psychology, and psychopaths in particular, will be hooked right away.

For others, stick it out because the payoff is worth it.

Sawyer is a veteran writer with 23 titles to his name, and has earned a plethora of awards including the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial Award -making him one of only eight people, and the only Canadian, to have ever won the triple crown of science fiction awards.

His prose is clear, conversational and confident.

The only complaint, and it is a small one, is that Quantum Night is almost self-consciously Canadian - as though Sawyer, a Canadian novelist, is trying to justify or apologize for writing a novel about Canadians set in Canada.

He will be touring Canada starting in Winnipeg on Tuesday and will be in Prince George at Books & Company, 1685 Third Ave., on March 29 starting at 7 p.m.

-- Three stars out of four