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.)