Robert J. Sawyer

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.

I’ve mentioned how I love synchronicity. This was the second book in a row to invoke the Julian Jaynes idea of the bicameral mind. (See Stephenson: The Big U) Feast or famine!

§

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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

18 responses to “Robert J. Sawyer

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The fourth Sawyer book was Triggers (2012), to which I’m inclined to give a Wow! rating. Due to a terrorist attack that blows up the White House, a separate nearly successful assassination attempt against the POTUS, and a quantum device affected by an electrical surge, 21 people get their minds linked in a one-way daisy chain (A knows B, B knows C, C knows D, etc).

    Really good. Read it in a single sitting!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    My memory is hazy, but I thought Orch OR depended on an objective wave function collapse. Or does Q1, etc. just refer to a superposition that lasts long enough to have biological effects?

    The point about his stories being set in contemporary times or very near future, I think, is why I find them less attractive. It doesn’t seem escapist enough for me. I seem to have a preference for settings sufficiently far away in time or space that little about it reminds me of contemporary times. Although Red Planet Blues sounds interesting, because space.

    I also see he has a series about a civilization of dinosaurs descended from Earth’s dinosaurs. That looks interesting. And from what I see of his writing in the Amazon previews, I do like its snappiness. And his book lengths seem to indicate they’re free of bloat. The immediate opening of Red Planet Blues feels a bit cliché, but not in a way that would make me stop reading.

    Another author to keep in mind.

    It is kind of funny how words and phrases develop, and often come to mean things very different from any literal interpretation. Although I think “philosophical” when applied to zombies can qualify the concept or the individual zombies themselves, both with equal legitimacy. Interestingly, philosopher’s zombies can be themselves philosophical. The SEP description notes that many of them spend a lot of time discussing their (non-existent) consciousness.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I went back and forth on it and ended up using the link to the Orch OR page because that’s what Wiki returns for [Penrose-Hameroff] and that page does provide a more detailed description of their quantum mind idea. But it also describes Penrose’s gravity-based objective collapse theory (which I rather like and posted about recently).

      In contrast, Sawyer’s science-fictional notion is of a persistent brain-wide quantum superposition involving lobes within the microtubules. The Q1, Q2, Q3 states correlate to how many electrons in each lobe are involved in the superposition. If no electrons are in superposition, they’ve all collapsed into a classical state, consciousness is switched off (as in a coma). The Q# state of a brain persists indefinitely (with a caveat that would spoil the plot).

      Maybe the link to the Penrose and Hameroff section of the Quantum Mind Wiki page is less confusing. It has a “Main article” link to the Orch OR, and the central idea is the notion of some sort of quantum mind. Sawyer refers to Penrose/Hameroff more as a well-known example than as the actual basis of how consciousness works. I’ve changed it, so thanks for pointing it out!

      I know what you mean about reading for escape. I tend to avoid “literary” fiction largely for that reason. You know my main ask of a story is originality, so I also find escape in the ideas of Stephenson and Sawyer. There is also that both, and especially Sawyer I think, write aspirational stories that focus on generally intelligent people solving problems. I think both are also good as “coloring within the lines” of their own axioms.

      Red Planet Blues is a deliberate pastiche of the “hard-bitten private eye” stories, so it absolutely (but deliberately) comes off a bit cliche. There seems a strong correlation between SF fans and mystery fans, and it’s certainly true in my case. Sawyer’s writing is definitely snappy and bloat-free. His main characters tend to quip.

      That “philosopher’s zombie” bit is just a cute quip by the main character — a wry observation. It definitely turns on the interpretation of “philosophical” as well as the implication that only conscious minds could be philosophical, but it’s just meant to make the reader see the twist and smile.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On Orch OR and the theory in the book being different, got it, thanks! I actually hadn’t followed any of the links, so none of them misled me. I just assumed Sawyer was using Penrose’s theory for the book, but of course he used one that matched his story objectives. Makes sense.

        Interesting on the correlation between sci-fi and mystery fans. I do like mysteries, but I’ve only rarely gotten into them in written form: the original Sherlock Holmes stories, some Dashiell Hammett, etc. But a lot of sci-fi stories are mysteries, just usually something different from murder. So I can see the connection.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Both Quantum Night and Triggers use a ‘quantum brain gimme’ as axiomatic. The former is as I’ve described; the latter involves entanglement magic to link the 21 brains involved but the text just assumes some form of singular quantum mind (no Q1, Q2, Q3).

        Holmes and Hammett (or Chandler) is usually where it starts! For those bitten by the bug, Holmes leads to Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Chesterton’s Father Brown, and other genial intellectual detectives. On the more visceral American side Hammett and Chandler lead to a whole slew of others.

        I think the way many SF stories are mysteries of some kind with a big reveal at the end does have something to do with the correlation. They have in common the notion of a puzzle, and there is also a correlation between puzzle-type games and SF fans. Science is often also a puzzle to be solved. And that’s just general SF not to mention sub-genre crossover SF involving private eyes or law officers. Hell, there is even the sub-sub-genre of time cops — an intersection between police procedural and time travel! (I recall a decent movie starring JCVD.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Quantum entanglement for a group mind? Well, it’s not like entanglement, or quantum physics overall, haven’t been used for magic in a lot of other sci-fi.

        I enjoyed Hammett’s writing. Talk about tight and snappy. I was disappointed to discover how little he wrote. Now to find someone who writes space opera and/or cyberpunk that way.

        On sci-fi mysteries, that reminds me of something I realized years ago when watching old ST:TNG episodes. I was trying to figure out what made them so compelling. At some point I realized it was that almost all of them had a mystery of some type. The other episodes usually had some other kind of dramatic question, but the mystery ones seemed particularly hard not to watch.

        Had to look up JCVD. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Van Damme movie.

  • Anonymole

    Watch your B’s n’ M’s in your numbers around the 4:2:1.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Seems we approach the same questions/problems from different “times”. Funny though how they don’t change. hmmm? or is it haha?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It was ever thus that it was ever thus (except not always). Nearly all my fiction reading is some form of science fiction, so, yeah, my tastes definitely lean towards the STEAM of the present and future. A key proposition of good science fiction has always been that, as with any good fiction, it’s always about us.

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  • Matti Meikäläinen

    Wyrd, I was deeply struck by the “Quantum Night” premise that merely 15% of humanity was fully conscious. Your explanatory comment in response to me (in another section of your blog) was that so much of human behavior does seem Pavlovian—conditioned behavior. And right you are—it explains mob psychology and cult behavior. The way it was expressed however, disturbed me greatly even though a form of that idea has been around for a couple thousand years. I never looked at it from the perspective of consciousness. I was shocked and saddened. It certainly expands Socrates’ claim; the unexamined life is much less than not worth living, it’s not human. I can’t shake that sad insight.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hey Matti. Yeah, it really got under my skin, too. The gap between what we could be (as expressed in our art and literature) and what we are usually has long been a source of Weltschmerz for me. I’ve felt like an alien visitor — ever the outlier — most of my life. I spent most of it seeing it like physical fitness; something one could improve through exercise. I thought the difference was just that most people weren’t trying.

      Which I still think it true, but, as with all things human, it’s more like being tall than being fit — a matter of birth and heritage. Within the bounds of that, one can still be fit or flabby, and people do still choose to allow themselves to be intellectual couch potatoes. Modern culture seems to push people that way. That bit about how “Hey, gorgeous!” is taken seriously but “Hey, Einstein!” is taken as sarcasm… Or the willingness people on YouTube have to express their ignorance with seeming pride. Or how it seems to make one somehow more human if one is bad at math and science. We reject illiteracy, but not innumeracy. It’s funny paradox to me.

      And then Sawyer comes along and not only seems to see the same thing but offers an interesting speculation about it. I doubt his science fictional idea is accurate, but what if there is something to the general breakdown? Maybe some minds truly aren’t fully awake (for whatever reason, personal, cultural, physical).

      Yeah, it’s disturbing AF, but the explanatory power has really turned my head. I can’t shake it, either.

      • Matti Meikäläinen

        Yes, I understand that Sawyer is engaged in science fiction speculation. However, his concept immediately brought to my mind Socrates’ aphorism from a disturbingly different perspective. Socrates teaching that the unexamined life is not worth living is merely an ethical criticism. Sawyer is describing some of your “intellectual couch potatoes” as much worse—as fundamentally different people, something akin to zombies. Even if his creative speculation is way off and only 1% of humanity can be described this way, it deeply disturbs me. I will ponder this idea for some time.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Socrates may have noticed it that far back. I’ve always liked that quote. Another favorite is due to Camus, “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” In both cases the expressed notion resonated strongly with me. Maybe we (and many others) really are noticing something about humanity. It could be effective, even willful, rather than literal, but it could also be part of the natural human physical spectrum. Consciousness is complicated, and maybe it doesn’t quite “ignite” in some brains.

        Yeah, it’s rather reframed my outlook. I can’t honestly say it disturbs me so much as answers a lot of implicit questions. May I ask, what makes it deeply disturbing for you?

        Looking at the post, I didn’t get much into it, but the characters in the book have the background to recognize the 4/7 explicitly as philosopher’s zombies, discuss the meaning and implications, and label that segment as “p-zeds” (because Canadian). The three involved determine to keep the information a secret because it draws such a hard physical line between parts of humanity — the opposite of the general grounding of morality.

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  • Wyrd Smythe

    I just finished Sawyer’s Flashforward (1999), and I’m still a big fan after five books. The story was adapted into a 2009 ABC television series that only lasted one season.

    The main protagonist is Lloyd Simcoe, a particle physicist overseeing an experiment at ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment), one of the four big detectors on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. [As an aside, the book reminded me that the “ring” of the LHC is more like an eight-sided stop sign with curved corners. For one thing, straight tunnels are a little easier, but the main reason is that various experiments are positioned on the eight straight segments, and not bending the beam avoids creating synchrotron radiation.]

    In the book, a very high energy event at ALICE (colliding lead ions) causes a “flashforward” event world-wide. Everyone awake experiences almost two minutes of their POV from 21 years in the future. Meanwhile, everyone on Earth is unconscious in the present during that time (with some tragic results — traffic, surgery, planes landing).

    In part the book is an examination of free will. How would it affect your life seeing a glimpse of your fairly distant future? Simcoe, for instance, sees himself with a different woman, apparently married to her, and she’s not the woman he’s planning to marry and grow old with. His work associate learns he’ll be murdered shortly before that future date. He experiences nothing during the flashforward, but others see reports of this death. (For instance, the young kid who grows up to be a homicide detective and investigates the murder.)

    I thought it a very enjoyable read. More like his Red Planet Blues in leaning towards being (just) a rippin’ good yarn, but still has some of the more thoughtful elements that his other work does — notions about free will, human consciousness, etc. (In this one, the future apparently do not contain sapient AI or uploaded human consciousness.)

    It also has a lot about the Block Universe Hypothesis; the main character is metaphysically committed to it (and the concomitant notion that free will is an illusion). I got the sense that Sawyer saw this as a flaw in the character — a rigid and (probably) incorrect view. (Others suggest Simcoe clings to the view to avoid the possibility of blame for the flashforward event.) [FTR: I’m pretty sure the BUH is an incoherent view. See this and this. While reading the novel, I also realized something else: If all moments in the block are equally real, then the universe actually contains vastly more matter than we realize, since that matter is apparently present for every moment of time.]

    Anyway, good read, very much enjoyed it. (I especially loved the several pages where Sawyer describes the world 21 years in the future. That description is built through a website that pieces together submitted descriptions of what people saw in their “vision” of the future. For a novel written in 1999, it’s got some cute bits.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The website for gathering vision experiences is put together by someone at CERN. They call the site “Mosaic” in honor of the first web browser, which was developed at CERN, and because it’s the perfect name for a project that pieces together tiny segments to create a unified view of the future. As I said, some of the bits Sawyer relates made me grin (hugely):

      “No one had yet set foot upon Mars — the early visions that suggested the contrary turned out to be virtual-reality simulations at Disney World.”

      “The President of the United States was African-American and male; there had apparently yet to be a female…” (The movies had been suggesting a Black President for many years by 1999, but female Presidents in movies were more rare.)

      “Cars couldn’t fly — but they could levitate up to about two meters off the ground.” (Which made roads somewhat obsolete.)

      “In a victory for common sense worldwide, fourteen of North America’s largest newspapers simultaneously agreed to stop running horoscopes, declaring that printing such nonsense was at odds with their fundamental purpose of disseminating the truth.” (Surely Sawyer is making a big joke here!)

      “Nanotechnology still didn’t work.”

      “George Lucas still hadn’t finished his nine-part Star Wars epic.” (Sawyer kinda got this one wrong. It wasn’t Lucas that finished it, but it was finished. And endlessly extended.)

      “Donald Trump was building a pyramid in the Nevada desert to house his eventual remains. When done, it will be ten meters taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza.”

      “Pepsi won the cola wars.”

      “The United States will finally go metric.” (Yeah, Sawyer surely is joking!)

      “India established the first permanent base on the Moon.”

      Remember these are all from 1999!

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