I caught up with Robert J. Sawyer for the current episode of New Books in Science Fiction. Sawyer is the author of 23 novels, and one of the rare science fiction authors to earn Nebula, Hugo and John W. Campbell Memorial awards.
The subject of the interview was his most recent book, Quantum Night.
Sawyer is considered, as he puts it, “an optimistic and upbeat science fiction writer.” But you wouldn’t know that from Quantum Night. The book explores the nature of evil, and its conclusion is alarming: the vast majority of humans are either psychopaths, lacking empathy for others, or mindless followers.
Sawyer deftly juggles multiple plots lines in Quantum Night, everything from his main character’s painful effort to reconstruct lost memories to geopolitical machinations, including the U.S.’s invasion of Canada. But the main focus is on Jim Marchuk, who discovers through psychology experiments that psychopathy affects two-sevenths of the world’s population–and that it can be diagnosed by taking quantum measurements of the brain. (His physicist girlfriend independently reaches the same conclusion).
What makes this idea particularly scary, is that Sawyer was inspired by real-life theories from a wide array of disciplines, including the work of psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, physicist Roger Penrose, anesthesiologist Stuart Hammerof, and philosopher David Chalmers. (Sawyer includes in an afterword a list of over 50 non-fiction books on which he bases the theories in Quantum Night.)
Like the work of Milgram and Zimbardo–who were attempting through now infamous experiments to understand the psychological underpinnings of the Holocaust–Sawyer, too, is trying to understand the origins of evil.
“Could the kind of evil that was Nazi Germany happen again?” Sawyer asks during the interview. “Well there are some signs in some countries… that it is happening again.”
By the time he’d finished writing Quantum Night, Sawyer had come to believe that the story he’d told was pretty close to the way the world actually works, and that humankind consists of “a large number of mindless followers and a very small number of people who are skilled at manipulating them.”
But he insists humanity shouldn’t give up hope. Fighting evil is hard work but good can still prevail. In support of this idea, he cites another expert, Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard McCoy, who famously said: “I found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.“