It’s always a learning process to study a great novel – and so that’s what we’re going to do here as we examine the opening to Quantum Night, the new novel by Robert J. Sawyer.
What makes a good opening in a story? That should be obvious – it has to be interesting so that it draws the reader in, either directly in itself, or by asking questions that the reader wants answered. There are many ways of doing this. You might start in the middle of the action (as you usually should), such as having a ruthless neighbor arrange to kill the dog of a poor, ignored girl (“The Wizard of Oz”), or with a raid on an enemy colony (“Starship Troopers”). There are the obvious action-packed eye-candy openings used in Indiana Jones and James Bond movies. There are the enigmatic ones, such as the opening lines to “A Tale of Two Cities” (with its very long opening line that you should read that starts out, “It was the best of times, …”) and Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael”).
There are many online articles on opening scenes; here’s “Great Beginnings” by Sawyer himself. (The article is specifically about openings for short stories, but the guidelines are mostly universal.) He goes over four types of openings, with variations of each:
- An evocative description;
- Introduce an intriguing character;
- Starting with a news clipping or journal entry (trickiest way, he says);
- Starting in the middle of the action (most versatile way).
Science fiction is the genre of ideas, and its opening scenes should reflect that. A classic example of this – if a novel that came out this month can be considered “classic” – is the opening chapter to Sawyer’s new novel, “Quantum Night.” He starts off with an intriguing character, a professor who lives in the world of neuroscience, who believes you can test whether people are psychopaths, but defends their actions as being something they cannot help, since it is their nature. Sawyer chose this opening scene carefully – as he wrote in his article on Beginnings, “If you’re going to start somewhere other than the natural beginning of the tale, you have to choose carefully.” In this case, he chose a scene that allowed him to draw us into this professor’s world, despite being only indirectly involved with the main story.
If I were to tell you the opening chapter begins with this professor teaching a college class, that wouldn’t sound so interesting, would it? That’s how the novel starts. And yet it’s enthralling as this is how Sawyer draws us into this professor’s world. He’s teaching a class on the Neuroscience of Morality, and right from the start Sawyer gives us a steady barrage of ideas and tidbits.
The novel starts with Professor James Marchuk professing his love of teaching to “… row after row of angst-soaked teenagers.” (Though not as much as his love of watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Arrested Development” – so he’s fully human.) Then it moves to an interlude of the professor being hired to defend a psychopathic killer, where he’d have to prove the killer was a psychopath, and that he therefore couldn’t control his actions. Then it goes to the actual trial, and then back to the classroom scene – all of this in chapter one. Throughout these opening scenes, Sawyer keeps dropping in ideas, details, and hints:
- Humans as stimulus-response machines whose black-box brains simply spit out predictable reactions to inputs (from Watson and Skinner).
- Savannah Prison photos from WikiLeaks, showing prison torture scenes by psychopathic prison guards, where “…each of these men and women had dehumanized the perceived enemy, and, in the process, had lost their own humanity.”
- Mentions of Abu Ghraib and torture.
- Stanley Milgram’s shock-machine obedience-to-authority experiments, where subjects were willing to apply electric shocks on others upon the request of authority figures.
- A student argues: “You can’t change human nature.” This of course hints at one of the themes of the novel.
- The professor defends a psychopathic killer (Becker) – who we will chillingly meet toward the end of the chapter.
- Mention of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, wealthy university students who in 1924 killed a boy just for kicks, and were defended by Clarence Darrow as psychopaths who “…couldn’t be executed for doing what his nature dictated he do” – and the revelation that the professor agrees with this assessment: “You can’t execute someone for being who they are.”
- The Hare Assessment test for psychopaths (lots of tidbits on this).
- The story of Princeton seminary students, rushing to give presentation on the parable of the Good Samaritan, but ignoring a man slumped over in an alleyway.
- The professor, from Canada, arguing with an American over separation of church and state – American: “Honey, there ain’t no such thing. Y’all socialists up there, right?”
- Mentions of Vladimir Putin, Steve Harper, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and new USA president Quinton Carroway – sort of a mix of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
- Homeland Security threat levels (orange, etc.).
- Megyn Kelly on The Daily Show defending the killing of an illegal alien (“Look,” she says, “it is a fact that this guy was in our country illegally.”), and hints that homicide might be redefined as killing a legal resident.
- The professor on the witness stand getting grilled, with conflicting testimony on whether Becker is a psychopath.
- And the chapter’s bombshell ending, where the professor says, “Dr. Goldsmith is dead wrong, and Dr. Bagi is right. Devon Becker is a psychopath, and I can prove it – prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt.” How can anyone not turn the page?
Who needs Indiana Jones or James Bond when you can have a barrage of tidbits that make you want to say, “Ideas and details and hints, oh my!” As to the rest of the book, you learn about utilitarianism (‘The greatest good for the greatest number”), the possible number of psychopaths in society (more than you’d think – and he names names!), how much our morality and what makes us what we are might be based on the “quantum superposition of electrons in neuronal microtubules in our brains,” and numerous other philosophical and scientific issues, including the central concept of the novel – the nature of consciousness itself. It’s a compelling, must-read story of mind-numbing concepts as we play around with the ideas of the mind itself.
Larry Hodges is the author of Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions (from World Weaver Press), featuring the election of 2100, where the world has adopted the American two-party electoral system, with an incredulous alien ambassador along for the ride.
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