BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A physicist becomes suspected of killing his former co-worker, who tapped into a significantly advanced technology that challenges the definitions of reality and identity.
PROS: Mind-bending ideas based on quantum physics; complex scientific principles are made easy to understand; story moves at a fast pace; alternating viewpoints amp up the drama; intricate plot…
CONS: …but said plot often comes at the expense of common sense and suspension of disbelief; characterizations are OK, but few of the characters evoke any emotional investment on the part of the reader.
BOTTOM LINE: Some plot and structure decisions take away from a story that could be even more enjoyable than it was.
Writing fiction is a delicate balancing act. There are many story elements to juggle at the same time — realistic characterizations, believable setting, proper pacing, interesting plot — and at the same time, it all has to entertain the reader. More often than not, only some of those elements are successfully executed, leaving readers to decide whether the good outweighs the bad. Fiction readers — and especially book reviewers — are thus often left thinking about the trade-offs made in crafting the story.
I found myself thinking about trade-offs a lot when reading David Walton’s near-future techno-thriller Superposition, a story whose premise is not only enticing, but mind-bending, too. (The novel seems to occupy an area of the science fiction spectrum near Robert J. Sawyer’s near-future thrillers.) Yet it seemed that with almost every good thing the book accomplished was paired with a corresponding attribute that kept it from realizing its full potential. This observation of duality is even more ironic when you consider the scientific premise of the story.
Superposition is about a physicist named Jacob Kelley, a smart family man who is suspected of killing his former co-worker, Brian. At the start of the story, Brian (who Jacob has not seen in years) shows up unannounced at Jacob’s house, talking about quantum intelligences and waving a gun around. He successfully demonstrates something so technologically advanced that it seems downright impossible. Later that night, Brain is found dead and all evidence points to Jacob being the killer. Jacob is arrested for the murder and put on trial…and at the same time, he performs investigations of his own.
But wait! How can that be? Is Jacob some new breed of super-detective who can solve crimes from behind bars? No, what’s going on here is where the mind-bending science comes in. The book relies heavily on the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics — that is, the idea that something can exist in different states at the same time. You’ve heard of Schrödinger’s Cat, who is both alive and dead at the same time? Same idea. The science behind quantum theory is not very intuitive, but the good news is that Walton’s explanation of the science, while very hand-wavey, is terrific.
Right there is the first trade-off: the science is cool, but the believability is in question. Ok, sure, this is a science fiction story, so suspend that disbelief a little longer. But the reader’s balancing act is put to the test when more trade-offs become evident:
- The story, much to its credit, is told from alternating viewpoints so we see the events unfold from the beginning, and we also see Jacob’s court trial unfold from its beginning, too. This ping-pong structure was a great way to tell the story and amp up the drama…but it sometimes came at the expense of odd plot choices to maintain the timeline of the trial, like Jacob doing nothing about his predicament for months when he would otherwise be able to. (That ping-pong storytelling structure, by the way, gave Superposition a kind of “Law and Order with quantum physics” vibe.)
- As good as the trial scenes were, it sometimes seemed grounded more in TV show logic than in law. For example, evidence in the trial is withheld that would seemingly exonerate the accused and have charges dismissed, but obviously the story would have ended to soon.
- The story relentlessly moves at a swift pace, but at the expense of believable character reactions when, for example, Jacob finds his loved ones in harm’s way.
- The story does a great job of showing how Jacob grows closer with his daughter. However, Jacob, for as much as he is positioned as the loving father, has no fewer than three occasions where he refers to one of his two daughters as the “prettier” one. It’s hard to root for such a character at times. Few of the characters, in fact, are portrayed to the point where you really like or despise them. They’re just…there.
- The story raises some interesting philosophical topics that this amazing technology brings about, but — except for themes of reality and identity — doesn’t do much more than mention them in passing.
- A prison escape sequence allows the story to advance to its not-too-surprising conclusion, but is predicated on the police being idiots who would let a prisoner have access to technology that allows him to break free.
These trade-offs didn’t completely discount the good, but they certainly did lessen the effects. The trick with Superposition is to stay focused on the cool, mind-warping science-fictional concepts and less on the trade-offs and scaffolding, thus allowing readers to come away from the book satisfied.