Robert Sawyer is the definitive Canadian SF author. You could say he’s outshone in some ways by Margaret Atwood, and that’s true. But if you’re a reader and lover of science fiction, Sawyer’s got the goods in a way that very few other Canadian writers can claim.
I really wish I loved his writing. I don’t. Quantum Night clarified that for me to some extent, at least: his writing is too straightforward, too on-the-surface, for my tastes. It doesn’t help that I’ve just finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is not really a science fiction book but uses the (traditionally science fictional) post apocalypse setting for purely literary purposes, and which is full of language and silence and is literature that’s impossible to ignore. Standing next to that book, Quantum Night feels overeager to Explain! All! the Things!
Sawyer’s book has left me with unshakeable thoughts in a way McCarthy’s didn’t. Quantum Night is about consciousness, a subject that Sawyer has returned to again and again, each time examining a new facet, carefully limned with words and outlined with action. In the WWW trilogy, which might, in my opinion, and despite the fact that I have not read them in their entirety, be his best books to date, he took on the notion of an independent, inhuman mind coming into being in the calculational landscape of the internet. Here he turns away from that and looks at a classically-composed what-if scenario: What if we had a really simple lens with which to understand human consciousness, and it turned out to be kind of a horror show? And what if we could fix it, but at huge personal cost?
By the end of the book, that premise has taken the world to the brink of nuclear war. It’s Crichton-esque in its ambitions, and also in the crafting of the book itself. Although the subject matter dips deeply into philosophy, physics, and psychology, it never seems overwhelming. At the heart of the narrative lies a simple mystery about lost memories, not terribly different from a sea of other stories in that vein. And there’s love and sex and a little bit of gore.
I didn’t like the book. I don’t like Crichton either. Neither writer is subtle or challenging or beautiful in the ways I like best. I like my King and my Egan and my Bradbury. But I think I’m coming to grips with the idea that there’s nothing wrong with this kind of book, and maybe there’s a good reason Sawyer’s one of the most celebrated SF authors of all time.
Which is cool, because maybe I’ll be in a room with him soon. Thanks for that, guys.