The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is one of the most prolific and celebrated modern authors of science fiction (with Hugo, Nebula and Campbell awards among others to his name), but recently Sawyer took some time between books. It was not time idly spent, as Sawyer relates in this Big Idea: It laid much of the groundwork for his newest novel, Quantum Night.


I wrote the first paragraph of Quantum Night on September 11, 2012—and the next day, my younger brother Alan got in touch to say he was dying of lung cancer.

I finished my work on the novel, returning the marked-up page proofs to the publisher, on November 30, 2015. My 90-year-old mother, then already in intensive care, died a week later.

There are three years between the beginning and end dates. With a two-decade track record of writing a book a year, that struck me (and my accountant!) as crazy. But my brother’s illness and death took a lot out of me, and for most of 2013, I wasn’t up for doing anything other than just reading.

And read I did, working slowly but surely toward the core idea for Quantum Night. I started with an absolutely riveting book called Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Its author, Roy F. Baumeister, tries to make psychological and evolutionary sense of our basest instincts.

Next, I tackled Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss by Laurence Rees. With all due respect to the corollaries to Godwin’s law, it seemed to me that the Hitlerian template was horribly commonplace: a handful of psychopathic manipulators whipping up mindless followers.

And perhaps, it occurred to me, they were literally mindless: exemplars of the entities proposed in Australian philosopher David Chalmers’s thought experiment about beings externally indistinguishable from you or me but with no inner life, creatures he termed “philosopher’s zombies.”

I’ve long been familiar with the work of Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose and his collaborator Stuart Hameroff, which asserts that consciousness arises from electrons in quantum superposition in little doodads called tubulin dimers within neurons (see, for instance, Penrose’s classic Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness).

Mashing up my reading about the nature of evil with Penrose and Hameroff’s theory led me to the central conceit of my novel, namely that human consciousness comes in three successively more complex varieties, based on the number of electrons that are in quantum superposition in each tubulin dimer.

If one electron is in superposition, I say the person is a philosopher’s zombie—the lights are on, but nobody is home.

If two electrons are in superposition, there is indeed self-awareness and an inner life, but such individuals literally think only about themselves; they have no empathy and are therefore psychopaths (callous manipulators, although not necessarily violent).

And if three electrons are in superposition, then there is a reflection upon the inner life—not just consciousness but conscience.

My novel proposes that each cohort is half the size of the one before: the majority of humans are philosopher’s zombies; a large minority are psychopaths, and only a precious few are empathetic beings.

Of course, all my speculation is wrapped up in a very human story about a man who has transitioned through all three quantum states during a difficult life and is now trying to come to terms with the things he did while devoid of conscience.

While pulling all this together, I consulted with some of the world’s leading thinkers on the science of consciousness (including Hameroff and Chalmers), psychopathy (including Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths), and quantum physics (including John Gribbin, the author of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat). My hat is off to them, and all the others who helped me on this journey.

My late mother always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Ultimately, despite its exploration of why evil exists, my novel does say something nice about the human condition; in the end, Quantum Night is an optimistic book. After all, it’s always darkest before the dawn.


Quantum Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

10 Comments on “The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer”

  1. Being a work of fiction, I can easily accept the central conceit of the story and enjoy the story. But as a scientist, I really have little time for the conceit of Penrose in his pronouncements about biological matters.

  2. That’s a great illustration of the premise “Writers must read.” I’m definitely looking forward to getting this one under my eyes.

  3. Thanks to the Amazon and it’s Kindle app, this book was the first thing I looked at this morning. I could hardly stop reading long enough to deal with my morning routine. This is a great book, and I strongly recommend it to everyone. As Sawyer says, the book is ultimately optimistic, but he does run you through some scary stuff before you get there. Not scary in the way a horror story is, but in way good SF always has. This is a future that we surely don’t want, and yet, if a discovery like this were to happen, there would be nothing we could do to stop it.

    Of course there are some things in it that would explain American politics if they were true.

  4. I’ve been looking forward to this book for quite a while. I was hoping to snag a signed copy when Sawyer visits Winnipeg but sadly I can’t make the signing. Maybe McNally Robinson will have some signed copies hanging around after. I have enjoyed everything I have read by Sawyer and this Big Idea assures me I won’t go wrong this time.

  5. Timely given that such a shining example of p-zombies currently exists (and are happily shambling towards the GOP front-runner). For that matter, that the second state, psychopath, is well represented by the object of their attraction.

  6. How is it that Robert J. Sawyer is able to put voice to the random things that I happen to be thinking about, and do it in a completely well-thought-out and interesting manner? It blows my mind that he’s so able to blow my mind.

  7. John killed this guy a few years ago in a blog post (justifiably, he was complaining about something silly). Good they made up. Another great book by Sawyer is Flash Forward. There was a TV series based on it, the book is very different and better than the TV series. It was not about conspiracy theories or action. It was about how people dealt with this bizarre event.

    Sawyer is interesting because he writes successful books about lots of different near future topics. Most of them are pretty different from each other. Most authors tend to revolve closer to a core style in the genre. I like Sawyer because his books are often very different fom each other. So Im less likely to fall into author fatigue of same stuff different book.

    His books are also relatively short and there isn’t and bloat in them.

  8. This one looks pretty interesting. I have it on my Amazon UK list to get when it’s in paperback.

  9. I reviewed the book for SFRevu ( I liked the ideas, but the first third is very slow and talky. I understand the need to impart a lot of information and the author did try to use different techniques so it wasn’t all one infodump, but it did make the initial pacing slow. I think the payoff was worth it but other readers might not.

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