(2015) David Walton, Pyr, £12.99 / Can$18 / US$17, pbk 300pp ISBN 978-1-633-88012-2
This is the kind of book they used to write in the 1950s. I don’t mean that in an insulting or patronising way, just that it follows the kind of structure and writing conventions of the time, and explores some proper science. At least I think it is proper science. Some of the stuff in this book made my head ache a bit, but those of you with PhDs in quantum physics will be in your element.
Superposition is a ‘what if?’ about quantum realities interweaved with a tack on murder mystery plot constructed to frame the physics speculation and provide some human interest. ‘What if the quantum world invaded the physical world?’ shouts the back cover blurb, and that sums up the basic premise.
Jacob Kelley is being tried for the murder of his friend and fellow scientist Brian Vanderhall, who has been speculating on intelligence within the quantum realm, and who has developed the ability (or the subroutines) to bend the trajectory of bullets and spin gyroscopes indefinitely. Vanderhall has, apparently, found a way to apply the weird counterintuitive physics of the subatomic level to our macro environment, leaving lots of things possible. Only he is dead, shot by a gun with Kelley’s fingerprints all over it, and with his blood all over Kelley’s shoes, in a room that only he and Kelley had access.
Kelley and his lawyer have to argue physics to prove there may be a plausible alternative to Kelly killing his friend, but that involves them convincing a jury that there may have been more than one Brian Vanderhall, and that he may, in fact, have shot himself. Kelley doesn’t believe that, but at least that’s slightly more credible than the real story…
The main speculation of the book, and the science the plot hinges on, is probability theory. That in an infinite universe – or multiverse – all things are not only possible but are manifest, many times. Furthermore, where there is more than one possible action or outcome (e.g with a toss of a coin) then both outcomes are in a sense real until the outcome is knows (the coin falls). They are in an indeterminate state. At the particle level, however, those possibilities are realities until the final determination is made.
So this book is a Schrodinger’s Cat speculation (explicitly referred to in the text). Cat in steel chamber with hydrocyanic acid and a Geiger counter, plus some radioactive material with an equal probability that one atom may decay over an hour, which would be detected by the Geiger counter, which would in turn release a hammer which would smash the container containing the acid and kill the cat. Or not, in equal probability. Because the chance is at the subatomic level, where a particle can exist simultaneously in a decayed and non decayed state, it could be argued that the cat is both alive and dead, at least until the box is opened.
I have got no doubt this book starts out as proper science rather than pseudo science but I am not sure how convincing some of the deeper speculation is, and some of the more exotic arguments such as quantum intelligences deserve a little more unpicking. The murder mystery plot is creaky, too, but well put together and there is a pleasing feeling that the plot knew where it was heading right at the start and got there according to plan. Characterisation is not great, but neither was it in real 1950s SF, and any book that makes you think, makes you scratch your head, makes you question the science whist admiring the ambition must be good. The crime bits read like John Grisham (on an off day) and the quantum science bits like all the old, hard SF guys, which is not a bad combination. I liked it.
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