Quite some years ago, poking around Apple’s collection of science fiction eBooks, I noticed Calculating God (2000), by Robert J. Sawyer. I’d never heard of him but got the impression he was a literary author who’d written a science fiction novel about God.
But the book’s description intrigued enough to add to my wish list. It sat there for years. An unknown author, a very long reading list, and Apple’s obnoxious prices, all conspired to keep me from buying it. Recently I noticed Apple had removed it from their catalog.
The library didn’t have it either, but an author search turned up lots of his other SF novels. I tried one, loved it, then tried three more with good result. We seem to have similar interests and sensibilities.
For instance, human consciousness, quantum mechanics, moral philosophy, and various social issues. Along with references to books and TV shows indicating a background I imagine is familiar to most long-time science fiction fans.
Sawyer easily classifies as a hard science fiction author. He reminds me a lot of Neal Stephenson in terms of technology focus and in making his stories contemporary or very near future. He also reminds of Greg Egan in having human consciousness running as computer software (Egan ventures further into the future than I’ve seen Sawyer do so far).
I first read, and was very taken with the ideas in, Quantum Night (2016). I give it a Wow! rating.
The fundamental premise is that just under 60% (4/7) of the human race are philosopher’s zombies (there is nothing “it is like” to be them), just under 30% (2/7) are psychopaths (they are conscious but without conscience), and the remaining almost 15% (1/7) are fully conscious beings with a conscience (CWCs or “quicks”).
In fact, the ratio between them is exactly 4:2:1. If, as the characters do, we round down the Earth’s population to an even seven billion, that makes four billion zombies, two billion psychopaths, and a mere one billion quicks.
The reason for this lies in the Hameroff-Penrose notion that human consciousness depends on quantum superposition in the microtubules of the cells of the brain. Two researchers at the (real) Canadian Light Source, a synchrotron at the (equally real) University of Saskatchewan, have discovered that electrons in the lobes of the microtubules can be in one of three quantum states, which they label “Q1”, “Q2”, and “Q3”, depending on whether one, two, or three, electrons are involved in the superposition.
These quantum states occur in the human population in a 4:2:1 ratio, respectively, and correspond to the three groups: philosopher’s zombies, psychopaths, and quicks. There is also a fourth state where the electrons collapse out of superposition into a classical state, and this corresponds to a complete loss of consciousness (as with a coma or certain anesthetics). In the classical state, consciousness is switched off.
(Note that sleeping is not a loss of consciousness in this sense, but in fact is an active conscious state.)
The protagonist is Jim Marchuk, a professor at the University of Manitoba and a dedicated moral utilitarian. Sawyer spends some time exploring the implications of that (both good and bad). Jim has developed a technique for identifying psychopaths by monitoring the involuntary saccadic motion of the eye. He claims it’s always accurate because that movement can’t be faked (or suppressed in those who have it).
The idea is that the “reptilian stare” of a psychopath is due to the lack of saccadic motion. Jim relates how, despite an outstanding performance by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) — and what an amazing performance that was — the one thing missing was the lack of saccadic motion (because Hopkins isn’t actually a psychopath). Jim determined this by buying a 4K version of the film and running closeups of Hopkins through his computer program.
We first meet Marchuk as he’s invited to Atlanta to testify in the trial of a prison guard who killed a prisoner. The defense attorney hopes to use Jim’s eye analysis technique to prove the guard is a psychopath and therefore not fully responsible for his actions. (Not to escape imprisonment, but as a mitigating circumstance to avoid the death penalty.)
The prosecuting attorney attacks Jim’s character and past, in part revealing his grandfather was a nazi prison guard — information made public years ago. Jim is astonished to discover he has no memory of a six-month period beginning in 2001. (The book seems to take place in 2016 or so, essentially when it was published.)
Thus begins Jim’s journey to discover what happened during those six months and why he can’t remember any of it. He discovers he had a girlfriend, Kayla (who is one of the two researchers who discovered the quantum brain states).
The three work together to establish the correlations between the quantum brain states and mentation. I liked this so much that I’m not going to spoil any of it (more than I have). You can read its Wiki page if you want spoilers.
I’ll mention a few bits, though.
Sawyer, early on describes a souvenir baseball bat commemorating the Toronto Blue Jays winning the World Series twice in a row (in 1992 and 1993). Vague spoiler: it’s a Chekhov’s bat. When Jim notices it, he idly wonders what it was like to be a bat.
One thing about Jim: He loves puns, and the book is full of them. And Star Trek references. Sawyer’s writing generally contains such bits of humor.
Regarding philosopher’s zombies, they’re usually called philosophical zombies, but as Jim points out, that’s an oxymoron. The zombies are anything but philosophical — they’re the invention of philosopher David Chalmers. The contention here is that well over half the population aren’t conscious but are functional symbol-processing bio-machines. Exactly as some have long believed with regard to human consciousness in general.
If there was any truth to this, it might explain a lot. I’ve never understood the resistance some people have towards the famous Thomas Nagel paper, What Is It Like to Be a Bat? Yet for others (like me), it’s an obvious notion. (“One person’s Huh? is another person’s Duh!”) Is it possible some people really are p-zombies? Is Nagel a litmus test? Weird as that seems to me, Sawyer really got me wondering.
Next, I read and very much enjoyed The Terminal Experiment (1995). I give it a very strong Ah! rating. (The higher rating for the first book is due to meeting Sawyer for the first time and to the novel ideas about consciousness.)
The plot involves a new technology for scanning the brain and loading the scan into a computer where it can be run. Sawyer doesn’t get into the how, but I got the sense it involves treating the brain scan as a physical simulation (as Stephenson does in Fall).
The protagonist is Dr. Peter Hobson who, as a med student, attended a harvesting of donor organs and was shocked to discover a rarely discussed ambiguity about whether the patient was truly dead. Donors are kept on life support to preserve the organs, and some have physical reactions when the process begins (bluntly, when the surgeon begins cutting them apart).
The impact this has on him drives him to develop a high-precision ultra-sensitive brain scanner capable of detecting any brain activity. This would allow attending physicians to know for certain whether a patient is truly dead.
During his tests with terminal patient volunteers, his equipment detects “a tiny cohesive electrical field departing the body at the precise moment of death.” At the moment all brain activity ceases, this field exits through the temple. His equipment loses sight of it and where it goes, but [SPOILER] other researchers discover it always heads off in the direction of the Orion constellation.
Naturally, while Peter insists it should be called a “soulwave” (because it’s a standing wave of electrical energy with unknown purpose or content), many just call it a soul.
Further tests show that it appears around the tenth week of gestation. They also discover that chimps have a soulwave, but cows don’t. (Sawyer doesn’t mention dogs, but I’d like to think they have one.) The discovery about chimps results in new laws banning experimentation and even captivity. The two species of chimps, Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus, are renamed Homo troglodytes and Homo paniscus.
Working with friend and collaborator, Sarkar Muhammed, a genius working on artificial intelligence, Peter develops a brain scanner capable of resolving the full structure of the brain. They scan Peter’s brain and make three copies of the resulting scan file.
Another company has developed a technology that uses nanomachines to confer immortality by resetting various cellular clocks. They also surround the brain with a bulletproof shield, so even a gunshot to the head doesn’t result in death.
Peter and Sarkar want to discover which is best: a normally limited life; immortality as software running on a computer; or immortality of the body through technology. They edit one of the brain scans to remove all physical concerns (making it pure intellect) and another to remove all concerns about death (making it feel immortal). They leave the third untouched as a control.
Unfortunately, despite Sarkar’s best efforts to keep them confined, all three scans escape to the internet. And one of them turns out to be a vicious murder. (If you have any sense of narrative imperative, it’s actually kinda obvious which one it is.)
I’ll say no more about the plot. I will say that I very much enjoy Sawyer’s ideas. (Quantum Night actually has a long and interesting Suggested Reading section.) He clearly has done a lot of research in support of his notions, which is why it’s so easy to classify him as a hard SF author.
One notion I’ll mention from The Terminal Experiment involves the role of laughter in human consciousness:
“…humor is the response to the sudden formation of unexpected neural nets.”
“I don’t get it,” said Peter.
“Exactly. ‘I don’t get it.’ People say precisely the same thing when they don’t understand something serious as they do when they fail to understand a joke; we intuitively realize that some sort of connection hasn’t been made. That connection is a neural net.”
Cool idea, and as I’ve said before, I’ve long valued laughter above all else. Long ago I read a paper that suggested language developed so we could tell jokes.
Then, a change of pace, Red Planet Blues (2013), an SF/mystery/private eye crossover. Sawyer has done more than one such (The Terminal Experiment is something of a murder mystery/police procedural crossover).
Murder mysteries, private eye stories, and police procedurals, are my second favorite genre (see the many Mystery Monday posts), so this is just one more attraction for me about Sawyer’s writing.
Red Planet Blues, as the title suggests, takes place on Mars, in the domed city New Klondike. Sawyer here is channeling the Great Klondike Gold Rush. As the protagonist, private eye Alex Lomax, puts it, “As a character in one of the old movies I like had said of a town, ‘You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.'”
In this case, though, it’s not gold but Martian fossils that attract prospectors. The good finds (which are rare) can make someone wealthy beyond dreams.
The SF technology here (beyond domed cities on Mars) involves the ability to transfer a mind into a synthetic body capable of working outside on Mars without requiring air, water, or food. And, of course, one can never be sure a transfer is who they claim to be.
One thing I find attractive about Sawyer’s writing is the observations of our unthinking oxymorons (such as philosophical zombie) and other social foibles. One (of the many) that caught my eye in this book: “I wondered briefly why whenever you said ‘Hey, gorgeous,’ people thought you were being serious, but if you said, ‘Hey, genius,’ they thought you were being sarcastic.” Kinda hits home to someone who was derisively called “Einstein” throughout grade and high school.
Stay laughing, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.