Author Robert J. Sawyer saves Saskatchewan in Quantum Night
BOOKS by Paul Dechene
Robert J. Sawyer
In his new novel, Quantum Night, Canadian science fiction icon Robert J. Sawyer imagines a near-future Canada where Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is Prime Minister and the nation is under threat of invasion from a United States led by a Trump-esque president. It’s the kind of set-up that could be used for broad satire, but Sawyer instead lets the political scenario act as the background to a sci-fi tale that explores the nature of evil, utilitarian philosophy and quantum mechanics.
And the whole thing is set in Winnipeg and in Saskatoon, where Sawyer spent the summer of 2009 as writer-in-residence to the Canadian Light Source synchrotron. (Regina even makes a brief appearance. Sawyer’s protagonist has to drive through it on his way between the book’s main settings.)
No surprise then that Sawyer will be in Saskatchewan as part of his tour promoting the book. Prairie Dog caught up with him by phone to ask about the challenges of turning the Canadian Prairie into a sci-fi setting.
The Canadian cities you picked as the setting for Quantum Night have to be pretty obscure for an American audience. Is describing Saskatoon and Winnipeg much different for you as a writer than describing the outer-space setting in a far-future novel, like Starplex [Sawyer’s 1996 novel]?
Every place in Canada is an alien world to American readers. There is certainly that necessity to bring it to life on the page. There are only a handful of cities that everyone in the world has a mental image of: Paris, London, Tokyo, New York. That’s pretty much it. Anywhere else, the author’s job is going to be to be evocative, to capture the city for somebody who may have no familiarity with it whatsoever. It’s my responsibility to make Saskatoon as real as I make any far-future world. And I’d like to think I pulled that off.
If you had to boil down Saskatoon, what’s its character in your novel?
It’s there in the end of the book. It’s Big Sky Country. This is the place where the joke is made repeatedly, you can watch your dog run away for three days. It is a vast plain. And I use that symbolically. The end of the book is supposed to be evocative that the vast plain is a vast sheet of paper on which any story can be written.
What about American editors or publishers? Was there any queasiness from them about setting a novel in Winnipeg and Saskatoon?
Never. Not on this book and on none of my previous books. And yet, on every one of my previous books, a Canadian has asked me that question. It is the quintessentially Canadian question to ask: “Could anybody anywhere else in the world understand or care about what’s going on up here?” And I’ve built my whole career on debunking that part of the Canadian ethos. Yes. The whole wide world is fascinated by what we’re doing up here.
Quantum Night springs from your time as a writer-in-residence at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatoon, and I’m curious to know where the line between the novel’s real science and imagined science is. So, for example, are they studying quantum superposition in biological systems at the Canadian Light Source?
Not to the degree that I’ve suggested that they are. The reality of the Canadian Light Source is a great deal of the science that it does is industrial science. It does things related to making sure that welding joints that are going to be used to build bridges will actually hold up to the strain required. They do lots of things that are applicable to clients who will come and provide some money to the Light Source. So pure scientific research happens there, absolutely, but not possibly to the somewhat rosy stage that I suggested.
But that said, this novel was set in 2020. We have a new federal government that will hopefully reverse the trend of Canada, not just at the Light Source, but coast to coast, having to justify the short-term return on investment of any science work. That was very much the Conservative government’s position. You can have money to do science if we’re going to see even more money flow back from industry. A forward-thinking government will hopefully encourage more pure science research.
A lot of this novel deals with theories of consciousness and it poses some pretty bleak scenarios, such as the predominance of psychopaths and unthinking followers in society. How do you feel about the scientific universe you created for the Quantum Night?
I do believe that it is a plausible extrapolation. I actually think the universe that we live in needs an explanation. It needs us to understand why it is that we still have poverty, why it is that we still have racism, why it is that we still have genocide, why it is that we have utterly and completely ignored climate change which clearly is an existential threat to the entire species. And so how do I feel about it? I feel if we can only get a handle on why it is that, as you and I speak, Donald Trump is the Republican front runner. How could that possibly be, given the reprehensible racist, Islamophobic, anti-feminist policies that he has espoused? It has to be that there are an awful lot of people who mindlessly follow charismatic psychopaths.
My novel postulates a way to actually identify, understand and possibly cure the condition of psychopathy and the condition of being a mindless follower. So I feel actually positive about the notion that, hey, fundamental research [is possible] into why it is that we still allow a small number of dangerous psychopaths to lead a large number of people to the brink of global destruction and what we can do about it — I think it’s ultimately an uplifting vision in the novel.
Can you give us a hint about what’s coming next for you, book-wise?
I don’t know. I am full of possibilities, but honestly, I’m going to take a break. It took me three years to write this book and it was emotionally wrenching to write. It did deal with a lot of negative stuff. And conceivably it may be the last book that I write.
I’ve written 23 novels. I’ve been at it for a quarter of a century. I think in a lot of ways this book is the capstone of all the things that I’ve been talking about in bits and pieces. [It’s a] philosophical statement about utilitarian philosophy, which is a philosophy which I think is wonderful. It’s a statement about the value of Canadian science on the world stage which is something I’ve been trumpeting to one degree or another in many a book. And it’s a novel about the wonders of the universe and how we are intimately connected to quantum physics, to the absolute realm of the very small. And it’s going to be a very tough act to top.
I’m just seeing how things are playing out. I’m not in a rush at the moment. I’m just waiting to see what the future holds — not a bad place for a science fiction writer to be.
Robert J Sawyer is a featured presenter at the Talking Fresh Festival at the University of Regina, March 4 and 5; and he will be teaching a master class in writing for the Saskatchewan Writers Guild in Regina on March 6. Sawyer will give a reading and talk at St Peter’s College in Muenster on March 7, and he will be giving a reading and talk at McNally Robinson in Saskatoon on March 8.