The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka (Henry Holt, July 21st, 2015)-Quantum physics are not my thing. My mind starts threatening to explode when confronted with the subject. Not because it’s boring. It’s not. But, it’s really strange science, and some of the theories sound impossible. They couldn’t possibly work. Right? Ted Kosmatka takes one of the best known theories in quantum physics and runs with it in The Flicker Men, and the result is a creepy masterpiece of a novel where absolutely NOTHING is what it seems. Eric Argus is getting a second chance. A friend wants him to continue his work where he left off at Hanson Research, but Eric refuses to go back to the thing that haunts him still. Hanson wants him, though, so he settles in, and even strikes up a friendship with a fellow researcher. Every day he still struggles not to drink, and before getting the job, even contemplated suicide. When he takes delivery of some unclaimed freight, he finally feels like he has a purpose: to replicate the Feynman double slit. It goes something like this: Feynman theorized that using the double slit experiment, electrons would produce a wave pattern (if one slit was open, electrons behave as particles, but with both open, they’d create a wave pattern.) But, what if this pattern collapses when it’s observed? The author describes it thusly: “There is nothing that exists until it is first witnessed to exist. Until then there are only probability waves. Statistical approximation.” So, basically, electron particles pass through both slits, a pattern forms. If they pass through only one slit, then “rationality dictates that it can’t interfere with its own propagation.” However, the interference pattern disappears if someone is watching. I’ll wait for a second while you absorb that. This is the first time I’d even read anything about this, because, you know, not a physicist.
Eric and his team soon find out that only humans can collapse the wave pattern. But…some humans can’t. It quickly attracts attention, and of course people want to know what it means. Does it mean that there is something fundamentally missing in those that can’t collapse the pattern? Does the ability to collapse the wavefunction indicate proof of the soul? Eric doesn’t want to have anything to do with this kind of speculation, but is soon pursued by a shadowy group bent on using Eric’s finding for their own nefarious means. If you do a bit of digging into quantum mechanics, and I did upon finishing the book, wavefunction collapse leads into the many-worlds interpretation, which is also brought into play in this book. I’m not going to give away any more, but the author has successfully written a fast paced thriller that also provides much food for thought. There’s a lot of science in the book, but don’t let it intimidate you. In fact, let it lead you to further research. It makes for fascinating reading. Eric is a wounded protagonist and the narrative is interspersed with scenes from Eric’s painful past, creating a melancholy that is woven throughout. Although brilliant, Eric is definitely an “everyman,” and as events escalate, he’s horrified that people are getting hurt because of something he’s done, and it brings to light how something like this can positively and negatively influence the larger world, while also bringing up questions of what it means to be human. It doesn’t hurt that the author is really good at atmosphere and cranking the creep factor up to ten.
I really enjoyed The Games, so I’m not surprised that this one is great, and it’s tough to find a thriller that uses science without “drying” up the narrative. The Martian is one of those, and hopefully readers will be inspired to read more about quantum physics when they finish The Flicker Men. If you like cerebral thrillers that educate as well as thrill, Ted Kosmatka has you covered.