An interview with Robert J. Sawyer, author of Quantum Night

Please welcome Robert J. Sawyer to the blog! His new book, Quantum Night just came out, and he kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more!

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I love the concept of Quantum Night? What inspired you to write it?

I’ve long been known as an optimistic writer, but there is clearly a lot of evil in the world. The war between good and evil is often explored in fantasy, but almost never in my field of hard science fiction. I wanted to see if a novel could be constructed dealing with why evil—which I define as conscienceless behavior, self-serving and without empathy—still continues to flourish in our supposedly enlightened twenty-first century world. I bring to bear modern neuroscience, experimental psychology, and, as the book’s title suggests, quantum physics, to explore the dark side of humanity.

What makes Jim and Kayla compelling characters? Will you tell us more about them?

One of my definitions of science fiction is that it’s the literature of intriguing juxtapositions—just about the only place where radically different disciplines and schools of thought can come together and spark off each other. In many of my previous books, the sparks have come from science vs. religion. In Quantum Night they fly as experimental psychology, a soft science that thinks it has hard data, butts up against a hard science that says there can be no absolute certainty, namely quantum physics. Jim is the expert in the former and Kayla in the latter. But, of course, more than that, I strive to make them well-rounded human beings, but with very different beliefs. Jim, a university professor, really tries to, as he says, “practice what you teach,” sacrificing his own centrality for the greater good in order to maximize the aggregate happiness in the world, even if it means minimizing his own. Kayla represents a much more mainstream approach; as she says, “When it’s you and yours, all the calculus in the world is supposed to go out the window.”

What kind of research did you do for the book? What’s one of the most interesting things you learned?

I spent an entire year just reading: about neuroscience, about the evil that lurks in everyday life, and so on. From Hannah Arendt’s classic Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil through the cutting-edge work on the quantum physics of consciousness by Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose, I just dug into everything that interested me, with no particular idea where it would all lead.

I also spent months in Winnipeg, where the first three-quarters of Quantum Night is set, and a summer as writer-in-residence at the Canadian Light Source, Canada’s largest particle accelerator, where the last third is set; I immersed myself in the places I was writing about.

I often say that one of the best ways to generate a science-fictional story notion is to take something that’s only ever thought of as metaphoric and treat it as literal: what if the mindless followers of psychopathic leaders really are mindless, without inner life or self-awareness. So, the most interesting thing I learned is that there’s a large body of research on what’s called authoritarianism—particularly by Bob Altemeyer, an emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba, where my own main character of Jim Marchuk happens to work—on why so many people seem to just fall into line, following a Hitler … or a Trump.

What is your writing process like?

During the first-draft stage, I write 2,000 words a day—stopping mid-chapter, and sometimes even mid-sentence—when I reach that goal. The advantage of stopping in the middle of something is you know immediately where to pick up when you get back of work, instead of staring at the screen wondering what the heck you’re going to write today.

You’ve undoubtedly been an inspiration to many authors, but what books or writers have inspired you, in life, and in your work?

The most influential nonfiction works for me have been two books by literary agent Donald Maass: Writing the Breakout Novel on the craft, and The Career Novelist on the business of writing. As for fiction, To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite novel, but I can’t bring myself to read the controversial sequel, Go Set a Watchman. I was very sad when the author of both, Harper Lee, passed away recently.

If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?

Frederik Pohl’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Gateway, which I think is the finest novel ever produced in the science-fiction field. It is not just about mind-blowingly big ideas but also an intimately human character, Robinette Broadhead. Most of what I know about writing science fiction I learned by studying that book.

Have you read any good books lately? Is there anything you’d recommend?

I mentioned above that a good story-generating engine for science fiction is taking something that’s only really metaphoric and make it literal. My great friend and fellow Hugo Award-winner Robert Charles Wilson does just that with the notion of social networking in his latest novel The Affinities, published by Tor. And Gerald Brandt, a new Canadian writer, has really given a fresh spin on some old cyberpunk tropes in his debut novel The Courier, just out from DAW.

What are you currently reading?

Greg Herken’s fascinating history of The Manhattan Project called Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. I’m very intrigued, as perhaps you’ve noticed, by the intersection of science and morality, and this book is about three of the brightest men to ever exist coming together to build the most terrible weapon ever conceived. How could they do that? How could Oppenheimer have come to sign off on dropping the bomb on civilian targets in Japan, even though the US knew Japan was already close to surrender? The complexities of the personalities fascinate me, and Herken does a good job of diving beneath the surface.

What’s next for you?

Honestly? I don’t know. Although I hope the result is fast-paced, moving, emotionally engaging, and funny—there are a lot of jokes and wordplay in Quantum Night—it was a very difficult book to write, and took me three years. So, I’m taking a bit of a break, and going back to my favorite part of the process, just reading voraciously in nonfiction, looking for whatever might catch my fancy next.

Keep up with Robert: Website


About Quantum Night:

Experimental psychologist Jim Marchuk has developed a flawless technique for identifying the previously undetected psychopaths lurking everywhere in society. But while being cross-examined about his breakthrough in court, Jim is shocked to discover that he has lost his memories of six months of his life from twenty years previously—a dark time during which he himself committed heinous acts.

Jim is reunited with Kayla Huron, his forgotten girlfriend from his lost period and now a quantum physicist who has made a stunning discovery about the nature of human consciousness. As a rising tide of violence and hate sweeps across the globe, the psychologist and the physicist combine forces in a race against time to see if they can do the impossible—change human nature—before the entire world descends into darkness.

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