Book Review: The Quantum Mechanic

Summary: A compelling atheist thought experiment, wrapped inside a cleverly plotted and fast-paced tale of transhumanist fiction.

This isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed a book written by a fellow blogger, but it’s always a pleasure for me to do, and this one was particularly pleasurable to read. The Quantum Mechanic is a novel written by the blogger D – you may know her as the author of She Who Chatters – for 2009′s National Novel Writing Month.

The hero of TQM is Douglas Orange, a mild-mannered Midwest physics professor who discovers one day that he has an extraordinary power: the ability to influence the workings of reality on a quantum level through pure will. He can’t change the past or foresee the future, but other than that, Douglas’ powers seem to be bounded only by the limits of his imagination. As he grows more skilled in controlling them, he becomes able to do almost anything, from reading minds to teleporting objects through space to creating matter and energy out of nothing.

At first, Douglas uses his power for nothing more than some remarkably convincing stage magic. But after a visit from a certain famous magician offering a million-dollar prize, Douglas is persuaded (and wouldn’t you be persuaded?) to become a vigilante superhero. Under the moniker of the Quantum Mechanic, he launches into a career of fighting crime and rescuing people from disaster, much to the consternation of politicians, police departments, and the moralist commentators of Fawkes News.

This is ground well-traveled by novels and comic books, of course. But most of those creative works fail to follow through on the logical implications of their premise, and assume that people in possession of awesome powers would use them for nothing more inventive than foiling petty crime. I’m happy to say that TQM transcends this hoary cliche, and the second part of the novel breaks into new territory. Having cured violence and war, Douglas turns his vision to grander goals, and his power launches humanity into a technological Singularity. Under the all-seeing eye of the Quantum Mechanic, disease, poverty and death become things of the past, and humanity begins to step into its birthright as explorers and settlers of the universe.

But not all is well. Just when the human race seems poised to take the final step into this-worldly paradise, ominous signs and portents begin to arise: the faithful start disappearing from the earth; the seas boil and the skies turn red as blood; and a strange new star appears in the heavens. And on the heels of these omens, humanity receives a visit from a sinister messenger straight out of the Old Testament, a menacing angel of light known only as the Entropic Engineer. Douglas’ powers don’t seem to work against him, and after delivering a prophecy of doom for all sinners, he promises to return soon at the head of Heaven’s vast army to usher in Judgment Day. It’s the Singularity versus the Second Coming, as the Quantum Mechanic faces off against the Entropic Engineer in a cosmic war for humanity’s eternal destiny… but is this destroying angel all that he seems?

Aside from the audaciously high-concept premise, there were three aspects of this novel that I enjoyed greatly. First of these, as you might have guessed, is its unapologetic advocacy of the atheist perspective. One of my favorite lines is early on: when Douglas denies God’s existence and a heckler demands to know if he’s searched the entire universe to be sure, he deadpans, “Why, yes.” And there are several great dialogues between Doug and his interlocutors on faith, on meaning and purpose, on morality and harm, and on other philosophical topics where the author lays out and defends an atheist and humanist viewpoint with clarity and compelling reason.

Second, TQM accomplishes something that I haven’t often seen done well: it tells an enthralling story even as society changes dramatically around its protagonists. Most of the transhumanist fiction I’ve read lacks the human perspective necessary for readers to identify and empathize with the characters. One could argue that this is unavoidable, since this kind of fiction by definition describes a world radically different from our own; but however necessary it is by the logic of the plot, it doesn’t usually make for good storytelling. This book neatly dispenses with that problem by anchoring its plot in Douglas, who retains his fundamental humanity despite his powers, and letting us see through his eyes.

Third, even aside from its explicit advocacy of our perspective through dialogue, this entire novel advances the atheist viewpoint in a more subtle way. The basic story implicitly takes the form of a thought experiment: If you had the power to end evil and suffering, would you do it?

Of course, we have always answered yes, reasoning that an allegedly good God’s failure to intervene in the same circumstances casts strong doubt on his existence. If there was a person with the power to stop evil, they wouldn’t stand idly by or hide themselves away, but would take action when they saw it was needed. Philosophically, we all know this to be true. But this book vividly illustrates that argument by clothing it in story, and – at least for me – thereby made it far more persuasive and convincing to me than it’s ever been before.

Douglas has the power to do almost anything, but he doesn’t hide away from the world. He uses his power for good: he stops violence, he cures disease, he answers people’s requests in obvious fashion, he shows up to respond to critics, and he acts based on a clear set of principles and not in an arbitrary or capricious manner. He acts, in short, exactly as atheists have always said a rational and benevolent god would act. And as the author shows us how the human race flourishes under his guidance, it drives home the point that evil is not – as advocates of theodicy often claim – an inherent part of the universe that can’t be eliminated. Nor does doing so compromise our free will, except in the sense that people are no longer free to inflict harm and suffering on others.

This is by far the most persuasive answer to theodicy I’ve ever seen: not a philosophical argument pointing out its flaws in a neutral and logical manner, but simply sketching another possible world where such excuses are not needed, and showing how they inevitably suffer from the comparison. And it doesn’t hurt that this compelling moral is wrapped inside a slam-bang, fast-paced tale of Earth’s ascent into a posthuman future, with a thoroughgoing humanist as its main character and a plot that an atheist can’t help but love.

(You can buy a copy of the book from CreateSpace.)

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    Wow, I’d love to read this!

  • http://1939to1945.blogspot.com NoAstronomer

    I’m sold. Good find, thanks.

  • Jim Baerg

    This sounds like something for my ‘to read list’.

    This post seems like a good spot to mention some other antitheist ficion.

    _The Salvation War_ starts with the premiss that Yahweh sends humanity the (capital M) Message, that everybody is now going to hell Satan is going to take over Earth, and all good humans should lie down and die.
    Some of humanity does just that.
    Most of the rest of humanity declares war on Heaven and Hell.

    See http://bbs.stardestroyer.net/viewtopic.php?f=35&t=118771 for the start of the novel.

    See http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheSalvationWar for some commentary that might give you a better idea if it will be your cup of tea.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    I’ve read this online, and I echo Ebons’ sentiments entirely (I have also ordered my hard copy btw). This really should be essential reading for every philosophy course. The sci-fi format exposes the failings of theodicy in a way no dry argument ever can, so as well as being a really fun read it is also a useful resource in the ongoing debate with a theistic world.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    the ability to influence the workings of reality on a quantum level through pure will.

    Uh, OK. It’s a work of fiction. I can deal with that.

    Nor does doing so compromise our free will,…

    Free will? now that’s just silly.

  • http://lenoxus.pbworks.om Lenoxus

    The thing about fiction is that it (usually) requires conflict, so utopias are very hard to pull off. At some point, I can’t help but assume that this guy’s power corrupts him. I mean, if I had just finished a book in which all human problems had been convincingly eliminated, without any questionable costs, I would feel kind of… bittersweet. So I’m hoping the angelic bad guys are, like, really powerful.

    None of this is to construct a theodicy, of course. Just because an interesting life requires variety, and sometimes that variety needs to dip into the realm of not-quite-fair and not-quite-perfect, doesn’t mean that any and every evil is justified — or even any evil. If all injustice existed only in fiction, I would be quite content with such a world, without taking it for granted. That’s the way God could have done things — explain to us directly just how lucky we are that he made us, so we don’t have disease or rape — instead of giving us, well, this world.

    Great, now I’ve got that sad feeling… :)

  • Jormungund

    “Nor does doing so compromise our free will, except in the sense that people are no longer free to inflict harm and suffering on others.”
    I don’t get it. In this book, I would be unable to choose to punch someone or strangle them or hit them with something heavy until they died? Or I could choose, but then I would be physically prevented from carrying out my actions?

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    I don’t get it. In this book, I would be unable to choose to punch someone or strangle them or hit them with something heavy until they died? Or I could choose, but then I would be physically prevented from carrying out my actions?

    Yes because in this fiction there actually is a de-facto God. TQM is set in contrast to a theistic god who, if omnipotent and omnibenevolent, could if it wanted to create a world where the only limitation on our actions was to prevent malevolent ones. I don’t think we are supposed to assume this a a good state of affairs or even a probable one, just that if there really was a God, why not this God? The one we (supposedly) have restricts our free will in all sorts of ways, spectacularly by killing, maiming, diseasing us or our loved ones apparently at random, just when we have other plans. TQM allows all aspirations to be met, now, at the point of conception with only one proviso.
    Of ourse in a world without God we either 1) have no free will 2) have total free will, depending on how deterministic the universe it as the scales and timeframes we experience it. But gods, should they exist, must impact free will if they are omnimax.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    Free will? now that’s just silly.

    Nah! Free Willy! now that was silly.

  • Zietlos

    An interesting concept… I’ve got a lot of books on my block, but once I’m through them, I’ll give this one a gander…

    The “A god am I” trope is normally used in absence of a real god’s work, so when you pit them against a “true” god it makes for a good foil that is not overused.

    I assume the “elimination of evil” was manipulating quantum physics to essentially remove a portion of “free will” from humans in order for the Greater Good: remove their capacity for evil and the memory that they ever had it. Seems like the god kinda thing to do.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Hi, everybody! I thought I should answer a couple questions and clarify a couple things, so here goes:

    @ Jim Baerg (#3): OK, so it wasn’t a question, but thanks for recommending The Salvation War! Interestingly enough, checking out the page for it on TVtropes took me on a wiki walk that ended up at the entry on “wiki walk” some six hours later (I’d never heard the term before).

    @ Reginald Selkirk (#5), Jormungund (#7), & Zietlos (#10): You have to remember here that Ebonmuse is a compatibilist, and he thinks that man is free as an undammed river is free (whereas I, a determinist, think that an undammed river simply is not free).

    SPOILER ALERT! At any rate, what this means (as I explain briefly at the start of Chapter 6 [online]/Chapter 7 [paperback]) is that the Quantum Mechanic simply “gets in the way” of any harm that would befall a person. You can still go through whatever motions you like, but the God/King/Hero simply sees to it that no harm comes of it, The End. END SPOILERS.

    Steve Bowen explains the philosophical aspect of it rather handily as applies to the bullshit answers handed out by theodicies galore, but the point is that the Quantum Mechanic wants humanity to go about its business; he simply sees to it that nobody gets hurt in the process.

    @ Lenoxus (#6): Oh, there’s conflict and corruption. I think you’ll like where it goes, you’ve got it partly right and partly wrong. If you do read it, then I really hope you like it! (Not just ‘cuz I wrote it, but because I think it would defy your expectations in interesting ways, and satisfy them in other interesting ways.)

    At any rate, some of these comments are already giving me fuel for another book, something from the opposite angle and with a psychological bent rather than a philosophical one. Although maybe such a thing would be a bit too weird, I dunno… But thanks to everyone who gave me a suggestion or encouragement during November, and double-thanks to everyone who’s bought a copy!

  • Nathaniel

    Sounds interesting. I’ll definitely check it out.

    What occurs to me though is that while it would be relatively easy to prevent harm of somebody trying to punch another person, what about preventing emotional abuse through constant cruel and cutting words? Not all abusive spouses control with their fists? Another sort of harm is having an oil come into a country with limited government, give money to the right people and then exploiting an oil reserve, even at befouls the environment and starts harming the health of local people. Would Douglas prevent the oil company from landing in the first place? Would he reverse the environmental damage?

    Definitely will check it out.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Funny you should mention that, Nathaniel – I actually address your first point at length in a paperback-only chapter (Chapter 4 – Small Victories), and the victim is named “Nate,” as chance would have it. As for your second point, it’s more or less covered in the spoiler-tagged section above. I hope you enjoy reading it!

  • Mimema

    Hah, I was just about to clarify for D that she’s a hard determinist and that “free will” was likely being used in the compatibilist sense, but I see D has already done that. So I’ll just echo the sentiments — ‘s a good book, and a quick read. D’s labored hard over every aspect of her baby, and I, too, found it a pleasurable read.

  • Jormungund

    Nathaniel,
    If we had a deity personally working to ensure our species continuation and spread throughout the universe, then I would assume that we wouldn’t be burning oil anymore. Couldn’t he just make electrons flow through wires for us or make turbines that are always spinning for us to harness the power of? When it comes to resources, such a being could break the concept of economic scarcity as we know it.
    That, and a being such as this could probably stop us from messing with other countries if it wanted to.
    I haven’t read the book, but off the top of my head this seems to make sense.

  • Snoof

    I just read the version which appears on D’s blog, and I just realised – I’ve read something very similar before, here.

    Not that I’m complaining – it’s interesting to see how different people have different takes on the same basic story.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Hey, that’s some really cool stuff, Snoof! Thanks for sharing! From what I’ve read so far, what it lacks in technobabble and philosophy, it more than makes up for with psychology and sexy. Like, it’s stuff I want to do, not stuff I think God ought to do. But I did a bunch of pretty egregious author insertion in my previous NaNoWriMo effort, and it got a little Mary Sue, so I tried balancing everything positive with something awful, but it just turned into a mess. So I guess what I’m saying is that TQM very nearly turned out even more like La Muse! :)

    Anyway, I’m gonna be up all night reading this, thanks for sharing! (Favorite line so far: “We play long games. This is mine.”)

  • pradeep

    While I recommend buying the book to help a fellow blogger out, you can read a first draft of the book at D’s site itself:

    http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/2009/11/quantum-mechanic-prologue.html

    I am on Chapter 10 and will probably finish reading it online before purchasing a hard copy.

  • http://nssphoenix.wordpress.com Dave

    The book arrived yesterday and I just pulled it out of the mailbox this morning. I even ignored the Olympic Games to finish it. D, nicely done.

    We all play games, and TQM’s Civilization Game is the best we are going to get. After all, its nothing but the play of energy across space and time. Or, as was put in the book, its nothing.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    Let me just second Adam’s glowing review. I read the book (in fact I could hardly put it down!) and I think it was excellently written. The only bad thing I can say about it is actually a compliment – I want MOAR! :D

  • Katie M

    FINALLY found time to finish reading the draft on the website-this is wonderful, D!

  • Kennypo65

    I can’t wait to read this book. I hope it’s as good as you say it is.