The Big Idea: Eric James Stone
Posted on January 5, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 26 Comments
Welcome to the first Big Idea of 2016! And while the title of Eric James Stone’s novel promises that it will be Unforgettable, Stone asks an opposing question: If you wanted to make a character who was destined to be forgotten, how would you do it, science fictionally speaking?
ERIC JAMES STONE:
When I came up with the idea of a hero who couldn’t be remembered after he was gone, I needed an explanation for what caused that effect.
I’ve had several stories published in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, a market that offers mainly hard science fiction, so I can come up with scientifically rigorous explanations for various story elements. But Unforgettable was not intended to be hard science fiction — it was really more of a superhero novel, albeit with a rather weird superpower.
I toyed with a biological explanation involving pheromones, but eventually decided to use quantum physics. I’ve always been fascinated by some of the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics, like superposition and wave function collapse. My wife is a high school physics teacher. Before we met for our first date, I told her she would recognize me because I would be wearing a tee-shirt with a physics joke on it. She said, “OK, but if it isn’t funny, I’m leaving.” The tee-shirt showed a wanted poster with a picture of a cat, and it read “Wanted: Dead & Alive — Schrödinger’s Cat.” (Fortunately, she found that funny enough that she didn’t leave.)
I figure most readers of this blog are familiar with the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment (or are capable of looking it up on Wikipedia), so I won’t detail it here. Suffice to say that before the experimenter opens the box, the cat exists in a superposition of aliveness and deadness. After the experimenter opens the box, the probability wave function collapses, and the experimenter sees either a dead cat or a live (and probably very annoyed) cat.
However — and this is where we go beyond the original thought experiment — outside the lab is the experimenter’s colleague. From the colleague’s point of view, the cat’s aliveness is still in superposition, but the experimenter’s mind could also be said to exist in a superposition of two possibilities: having seen a dead cat and having seen a live cat.
All of that is still within the realm of current theoretical physics. But to provide a theoretical basis for my hero’s superpower, I needed to take it one step further. I wondered, what if there were some sort of glitch, and the wave function for the experimenter’s mind collapsed to the version where the cat is dead, while the wave function for the cat itself collapsed to the version where the cat is alive?
Nat Morgan, the hero of my novel Unforgettable, is the personification of such a glitch: he exists in a superposition of being there and not being there, and once he’s gone the wave functions of the minds of everyone he’s met always collapse to the version in which he wasn’t there.
Once I had my theoretical explanation in place, I proceeded to work out the implications of Nat’s superpower. Figuring out the rules for what happened when he interacted with people helped me to develop scenes that showcased the rules, so the reader would come to understand them.
Unforgettable: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
Interesting novel idea….
It sounds like a good novel idea, but PLEASE don’t say it’s “within the realm of current theoretical physics.” Schrodinger devised the thought experiment primarily as a satirical commentary on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, not as an actual hypothesis or theory. It wouldn’t work in real life because the “observer effect” doesn’t literally mean “a human being watching it,” it means observation from beyond the quantum level. Once you hook up a detector to the particle in superposition, the detector collapses the wave front and the cat definitively lives or dies. For that matter, the cat counts as an “observer” for purposes of this discussion. Superposition doesn’t extend beyond the quantum scale.
All that said, “What if it did?” is a marvelous way to start a sci-fi novel, and I’m interested in this one. :)
Sounds like it shares some ideas with Quarantine by Greg Egan, which is a really excellent book, so I shall look out for this one.
I have to admit I looked at that cover and mainly thought, “Oh, look! A female character with lots of skin exposed, next to a male character who is not only fully dressed, he’s wearing a turtleneck and a jacket!” They don’t even look like they are experiencing the same weather. I half expected to learn that his superpower had something to do with being cold, or he carries his own microclimate with him or something. I mean, I guess I could understand if the artist is trying to punch it home that the guy is forgettable by dressing him in a bland forgettable way (especially next to the woman’s orange top and pants that could fall off any minute), but if the physics is doing the forgetting, he doesn’t really need the dark glasses to be anonymous, now does he?
(I know, I know. It’s a Baen cover and thus expected to be awful, but Man! That’s distracting. )
Love the high concept for this. Congratulations, Eric, on Unforgettable! So looking forward to reading it!
Rather like the telepathic power named “Plateau Eyes” that Larry Niven came up with in his novel “A Gift from Earth”. People with this ability could manipulate another’s focus of interest in them to degrees varying from being completely enraptured to utterly ignored.
The other predecessor that comes to mind is (assuming I recall correctly, amusingly): Mute by Piers Anthony; the main character, Knot, has this power. Of course, truly original ideas are very hard to come by, and tend to be overrated, so what matters is what’s done with it.
Off-hand, both the Niven and Anthony versions are telepathically-based, and so have no effect on video recordings, for example, while this version seems like it *might* be more comprehensive.
Does the wave function of, say, a mud puddle he walked through also resolve to a version without his footprints? If so, then you have the interesting situation of having a protagonist who may be literally incapable of making a difference in the world. If not, and it’s only the wavefunctions of sentient observers that collapse in that fashion, then it may be indistinguishable from the telepathic versions.
Wasn’t the whole point of Schrodinger’s cat, that it’s nonsense to talk about the cat being both alive and dead…? it’s just that you don’t know which it is until you open the box.
Reminds me a little of the short story Nobody Bothers Gus by Algis Budrys.
Heisenberg and Schrodinger are on a trip, and get stopped for speeding.
The policeman approaches and asks, “Do you know how fast you were going?”
“Great!” Heisenberg says. “Now we’re lost.”
“Hey,” the policeman says from the back, where’s he opened the trunk. “Do you know you have a dead cat in here?”
Schrodinger winces. “I do now!”
(Not remotely original to me, but seemed on point).
Re David: funny. Good one.
One of the characters in Zeros has this same thing (though they never get into explaining how it works). It’s a fun concept to play with. I’m sort of on a superhero reading kick lately, so I might have to check this one out.
Interesting version of an idea that has (as stated) been kicked around somewhat: Mearns wrote Antigonish in the 1890s, IIRC.
Agree on the cover.
Beyond that, the first thing that came to mind was Natalie Cole.
Could be a good read.
at zer_netmouse l didn’t notice the cover pic but yeah. Annoying because it’s just like my granddaughter and her dumbass: He slouches around dressed like he saw the weather report and she shows off her belly button jewelry.
Also, appreciated the jokes, and the dumbass is actually a dinkum cobber if that means “good guy:” That 16 YO gd’s 3 YO baby sis Really loves him, and he is afraid of me so all is good.
Another mess of a Baen cover, but the idea sounds interesting. Maybe in ebook.
That just sounds as if it would be the greatest villain power, rob a bank leave and everyone forgets you.
Yeah, I’m glad I read about this book on Whatever. Now I’ll take a look at it when it comes out. Otherwise, with that cover, I’d have passed it up immediately. Which is a shame, because it sounds like a really cool setup for the story. I mean, I know that SF/F cover design isn’t what it once was, but … really?
I particularly wonder how the main character has grown up to not be a complete psycopath. Did he not develop his powers until adulthood?
Is some old saying about “books” and “covers.”
Me? I only buy books that have cover art by Eggleton which is why I’ve never read a Scalzi, Niven or Weber book.
And Kathy’s husband (kh) and Honor H. would do lunch, and Honor really could beat up a Kzin, and kh would shoot a kzin, but maybe not fast enough or with a deadly enough ammo choice.
His book is sold out on Amazon,Larry Corriea also did a book bomb for him. I guess you two really helped him out.
First thought: Holy god, that cover.
Second Thought: It’s a pretty interesting concept, I’d read that book.
Third thought:Am I the only person seeing a bizarre russian political diatribe in broken english as the first post?
at Brendan: Perhaps Mr S thinks it is amusing, or perhaps WordPress has been hacked and he can’t see it.
IOW? nope. not the first.
I read the excerpt (the one at Baen, which is eight full chapters, unlike the samples at Amazon, etc.) I’m hooked! Off to make use of the Barnes & Noble gift card I got for Christmas…
Enjoying the e version. Thanks for recommending it.
Or sort of like the Silence from Doctor Who.
Regardless, I’m about halfway through. Very good, so far.