Friday, July 15, 2016

What science fiction does best

Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer doesn’t need another great review. It’s got plenty of those and I don’t really review books, so much as trumpet those I’ve come across that deserve a solo.

Predicting the future is not the job of science fiction. It’s a parlor trick. It can be used to garner attention from outside the SF bubble, but it’s really not the genre’s most valuable contribution to society. Changing perspective, getting people to adjust their view, look at things in a different way and maybe get them to change their respective headings – that is what separates a decent science fiction novel from a Bazooka Joe comic. In terms of changing the way you view the world, Quantum Night is better than going to the optometrist.

The hook of the book is this hypothetical: Humanity is divided into Quicks (thinkers with a conscience), Psychopaths (thinkers sans a conscience) and P-zeds, who lack an internal voice.

Robert makes this scenario very, very plausible. The first gift of the book. Regardless of the science, he pushes you to look at the problems in the real world through this three-fractured lens. It makes you think about how we sort people, whether it’s fare and would we take it further if we had the tools. It’s jarring, relevant (extremely relevant lately) and the second gift of the book.

The third gift is more for writers than readers and goes like this: There are guidelines for writing a novel, things you tell authors who’ve been foolish enough to start trying to help them along the way. Things like “don’t use first person”, “don’t change point-of-view”, “maintain the time line.” Robert ignores each of these. It is a testament to his craftsmanship that he can stray so far from common narrative norms and keep the narrative force. Don’t try this at home.

Of course, most books don’t have a reason to play with the POV and timelines. This one does. All writing is a mind game and this book is about how different people play it. Having the actual bones of the book hold up the theme is more than gift. Gifts are frequently something you asked for or expected - this a complete surprise. Not the people jumping out of the darkness and yelling at you kind. It’s the good kind.