Quantum physics is not a subject for the scientifically faint of heart. Those nutty particles and waves are behaving in some very weird ways down there at the nanoscale level. They probably think no one is looking so they can party all they want. However, plenty of students, professors, engineers, scientists and cryptographers have variously been watching them for many years. Even the old comedy troupe called The Firesign Theater named one of their albums, albeit unintentionally, with the spot on quantum descriptive title How Can You be In Two Places at Once When Not Anywhere at All.
Undeterred by the many brain-bending challenges of this highly specialized field of physics, those involved in it in any manner are keenly aware of the fundamental principle that merely observing any of this activity can change can change the quantum state of things. This puts a whole different, well, spin on those pesky electrons.
Taking these principles and integrating them into a wildly imaginative plot, writer David Walton, himself an engineer, has just spun this volatile mixture into a delightfully over-the-top new novel called Superposition (Pyr, 2015). He has craftily thrown sci-fi, mystery and trial drama ingredients into his literary blender and poured out a very cool smoothie of a story. Moreover, he has given his narrative and characters enough original twists and turns to make the producers of Lost envious.
The story gets off to a furious start, set sometime in the near future. A college professor named Jacob Kelly receives a visit a home one night from one of his colleagues named Brian Vanderhall. Although it is anything but a “Hi, how ya doing?” stop over, but rather, he is brandishing a gun and claiming to be pursued by an intelligent alien who has crossed over from the quantum universe. Brian then demonstrates several seemingly impossible physical actions, starting with a gyroscope, that offer proof of his seemingly delusional claims. Then he points the gun at Jacob’s wife and that when things get really bizarre in both the normal and quantum realms. Joe allegedly kills Brian while protecting his wife and family but a second and identical Brian is also soon found murdered at a nearby abandoned physics research lab at their university where Joe and Brian work.
But this is all just getting started because a second and identical Joseph likewise appears. One is arrested and put on trial for murdering Brian while the second one is free and, along with his surviving daughter (his wife and two other children were later found inexplicably dead), trying to solve this infuriating and thickening skein of puzzles.
Could Brian have been telling the truth about his breakthrough into the quantum universe where he learned to control seeming impossible phenomena and drawn the murderous attention of a highly intelligent alien who inhabits that “place”? Are the two Josephs and Brians the same “people” or are they different beings? Could Joe’s family be dead in one universe only to have possibly survived in another and, if so, can he bring them back across the breach? Do the events in one universe somehow “entangle” (in quantum physics speak) and affect events in the other?
While Einstein expressed his doubts about entanglement, famously calling it “spooky action at a distance” (see Footnote 4 in the link immediately above), Walton’s novel provides an abundance of spooky action way up close and personal. The novel is split along two timelines, one for the trial and the other as, well, the “other” Jacob, his daughter and his brother-in-law race off to track down the alien, the other members of their family, and the Brian’s real murderer. Both tracks are highly compelling as the narrative pivots between the nearly hallucinatory events of the sci-fi mystery and the more firmly grounded murder trial unfold. Walton very cleverly transports the reader back and forth between these extremely familiar and unfamiliar environments while carefully opening and resolving tricky plot points on both sides of this dimensional divide.
Besides deftly mashing up what would otherwise seem to be the unmashable, the author’s equally shrewd accomplishment is the valuable tutorial on quantum physics woven into his text. Speaking through his characters, he explains these often difficult to grasp concepts with enough clarity to draw his readers into the underlying science and, in turn, his plot lines been built upon it. College physics professors could both enlighten and entertain their students by assigning this novel as reading. It would very likely put them in a rather, well, super position going into the final exam.
Sci-fi, mystery and legal thriller fans will find the book satisfying and worthwhile because its audacity and creativity succeed on all levels. Furthermore, it raises some very intriguing issues of first impression about evidence, procedure and professional ethics during the course of the trail. Jacob’s lawyer becomes fully aware of reality-defying events surrounding his client and does his best to defend him in court. However, there is no standard defense strategy where several of the victims and the accused may have been divided in two and one of the other suspects is from alternative world.
How can a scientific foundation be presented to the court for phenomena that no one knows exists much less can be tested in any way? How can an expert be qualified to testify under such bizarre circumstances? Does the attorney/client privilege attach to only the Joseph in jail who is being tried or to the second but identical Joseph who is trying to help the defense attorney? Do both of Joseph’s iterations receive the exactly the same constitutional rights and protections? How can the prosecution rebut any evidence that these splits and dual events have even occurred? The author has done his research well in constructing a story where these issues arise.
A famous thought experiment in study of quantum physics is called Schrödinger’s Cat. It is used to explain what “superposition” actually means in quantum physics and there is a reference to it in some dialog in the book. It is used to illustrate and interpret different possible quantum states, in this case whether the cat, under certain experimental circumstances involving a radioactive source and a flask of poison inside the box, is alive and dead or else alive or dead. Walton predicates the fates of Joseph and his family upon this concept and pulls it off with great finesses and drama. Any further explanation here would only give paws to letting that cat out of the box inside of this very impressive novel.
Superposition is not the first sci-fi novel to use quantum physics as part of a plot involving a murder mystery. This was done previously in a novel entitled Spin State (Spectra 2004) by Chris Moriarty. This is a vastly different type of story set far in the future. I highly recommend it to any and all dedicated sci-fi fans. As well, it was the just first installment in an outstanding trilogy that later included Spin Control (Spectra 2007) and Ghost Spin (Spectra, 2013).