Robert J. Sawyer

Quantum Night

Ace 2016

New Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in LiteratureNew Books in Science FictionNew Books Network February 15, 2018 Rob Wolf

In this episode, Rob Wolf interviews Robert J. Sawyer, the author of 23 novels, about his most recent book, Quantum Night (Ace, 2016). Sawyer...

In this episode, Rob Wolf interviews Robert J. Sawyer, the author of 23 novels, about his most recent book, Quantum Night (Ace, 2016).

Sawyer is considered, as he puts it, “an optimistic and upbeat science fiction writer.” But you wouldn’t know that from Quantum Night.The book explores the nature of evil, and its conclusion is alarming: the vast majority of humans are either psychopaths, lacking empathy for others, or mindless followers.

Sawyer is one of the rare science fiction authors to earn Nebula, Hugo and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and he deftly juggles multiple plots lines in Quantum Night, everything from his main character’s painful effort to reconstruct lost memories to geopolitical machinations, including the U.S.’s invasion of Canada.

The story focuses on Jim Marchuk, a psychologist at the University of Manitoba, and his discovery (which his physicist girlfriend independently confirms) that psychopathy affects two-sevenths of the world’s population—and that it can be diagnosed by taking quantum measurements of the brain. What makes this idea particularly scary, is that Sawyer was inspired by real-life theories from a wide array of disciplines, including the work of psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, physicist Roger Penrose, anesthesiologist Stuart Hammerof, and philosopher David Chalmers. (Sawyer includes in an afterword a list of over 50 non-fiction books on which he bases the theories in Quantum Night.)

Like the work of Milgram and Zimbardo—who were attempting through now infamous experiments to understand the psychological underpinnings of the Holocaust—Sawyer, too, is trying to understand the origins of evil.

“Could the kind of evil that was Nazi Germany happen again?” Sawyer asks during the interview. “Well there are some signs in some countries… that it is happening again.”

By the time he’d finished writing Quantum Night, Sawyer had come to believe that the story he’d told was pretty close to the way the world actually works, and that humankind consists of “a large number of mindless followers and a very small number of people who are skilled at manipulating them.”

But he insists humanity shouldn’t give up hope. Fighting evil is hard work but good can still prevail. In support of this idea, he cites another expert, Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard McCoy, who famously said: “I found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.

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—Ursula K. LeGuin’s speech accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.


Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe. He worked for a decade as a journalist, writing on a wide range of topics from science to justice reform. He now serves as director of communications at a think tank in New York City.

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