Robert Sawyer has always been a very philosophical writer, but the protagonist in Quantum Night is actually a utilitarian philosophy professor trying very hard to live strictly in accordance with his principles. Jim, the professor, goes so far as to follow Peter Singer in practicing veganism and donating a large portion of his income to fight poverty in the developing world. Jim discovers that he is missing six months of memories from his college days 20 years before. The book explores Jim's attempts to recover his memories and, in the process of all of the discoveries he makes, save humanity as a whole from itself. Always, at every turn, Jim tries to do the greatest good for the greatest number.
Quantum Night is based on Roger Penrose's theory that consciousness arises from quantum phenomena in the brain. I actually am sufficiently philosophical (or crazy) to have read Penrose's book, The Emperor's New Mind. It seems that I found it less convincing than Sawyer did.
In the Quantum Night universe, microtubules in the human brain can be in three states of quantum superposition: Q1, resulting in a philosopher's zombie; Q2, resulting in a psychopath; and Q3, resulting in an actual thinking person with a conscience. This is speculative fiction, so I'm willing to go along with this for purposes of the story. What boggles my brain (and I think it's supposed to), is that, in this novel, these three types of humans exist in a 4:2:1 ratio. Sawyer seems to be speculating that, whether caused by quantum phenomena or not, this is the reality of humanity, that more than half of us are philosopher's zombies, almost a third of us are psychopaths, and only 1 in 7 of us has a conscience.
Sawyer cites an extensive bibliography at the end of the book, and is obviously much more well-read on this topic than am I (and I am rather well-read on it). It is possible that 2 in 7 of us are thoughtless, manipulative psychopaths, as of course not all psychopaths are actually violent. But the idea that more than half of us have no conscience or inner monologue going on in their brains seems, well, highly speculative. It is somewhat easier to believe that more than half of us have few ideas of our own and just follow the trends of others. The book explores the implications of all of this, not only on an intimate, personal decision-making level, but also on the geopolitical level. I appreciated Sawyer's particularly Canadian perspective.
Sawyer presents us with a wide array of fascinating characters whose lives are cleverly intertwined. The female characters are well developed, and the lead female characters are scientists. Sawyer carefully presents each character either as a philosopher's zombie, a psychopath, or a thinking person, and there many surprises.
This is a fascinating book for those of us who, like me, are wildly interested in these sorts of thought explorations of how our minds work, but those looking for action will probably find the story lacking. While I found the storytelling to be very well paced, and had difficulty putting the book down, I found the writing style a bit pat, bland, and overly simple. So, I'm not planning to nominate Quantum Night for a Hugo, but I think many of you will still enjoy it as much as I did.