A Book A Week: Flashforward

Proof positive that Robert J. Sawyer is a visionary writer in at least two respects:

Lloyd and Theo disengaged, and Lloyd surged across the room. He reached out and took Michiko’s hands and pulled her to her feet, then hugged her.

“Honey,” Michiko said, “what is it?”

Lloyd gestured at the console. Michiko’s eyes went wide. “Sinjirarenai!” she exclaimed. “You got it!

Lloyd grinned even more. “We got it!”

“Got what?” asked one of the reporters. “Nothing happened, damn it!”

“Oh, yes it did,” said Lloyd.

Theo was grinning, too. “Yes, indeed!”

“What?” demanded the same reporter.

“The Higgs!”said Lloyd.

“The what?”

“The Higgs boson!” said Lloyd, his arm around Michiko’s waist. “We got the Higgs!”

Another reporter stifled a yawn. “Big fucking deal,” he said.

In honor of the fact that the world of science has more or less identified the Higgs boson–a.k.a. The God Particle–and, judging from the relative lack of news coverage it received, that the world could not care less (except for us science nerds), I figured I’d take the chance to review Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer. Published by Tor in 1999, it’s a neat book and a fun read which had nothing whatsoever to do with the television series that was ostensibly made from it.

Well . . . it had some similarities. In the show, main character Lloyd Simcoe was the dashing young physicist with Alan Richman’s accent (if not his delivery) and a son on the autism spectrum; in the book, Simcoe is the middle-aged Canadian physicist with a Japanese girlfriend a decade junior to him, who has a daughter who dies on page 10. And there is a strange event that renders all humans on the planet unconscious whereupon they experience their lives decades in the future. But that’s where the overlap kind of ends.

Let’s start with the book.

Lloyd Simcoe is the head physicist on an international project to  identify the Higgs boson. The experiment is planned for April 21, 2009. They throw the switch, and every human on the planet falls unconscious for two minutes and seventeen seconds as they experience their lives twenty-one days in the future. They wake to find the world in chaos. Automobile collisions are everywhere (Michiko’s daughter was hit by a car and killed instantly), swimmers have drowned, aircraft have crashed on take-off or landing; people have burned to death after collapsing on their stoves or broken bones while falling down stairs. And no surveillance camera anywhere caught any of it; two minutes and seventeen seconds of snow is all they can show.

Simcoe’s ALICE project has created a temporal event, we learn. Everyone has an experience of themselves at a future point in time. This bring up a slew of paradoxical arguments, suppositions, and flat denials that there is such a thing a time travel in any form (Sawyer bring up Larry Niven’s Law of Time Travel, and mocks a James Randi-like character).

The bulk of the book is an exercise in scientific methodology, as the characters work to figure out what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. In the meantime, everyone wants to work through what they saw (or didn’t see . . . those who were dead in the future merely stayed unconscious; Simcoe’s co-worker Theo Procopides is one of these). A wiki is set up so that individuals can tell their respective stories. Every new story becomes another piece of the mosaic.

Ultimately, the cause is determined: at the very second the Large Hadron Collider was revved up to full power, the Earth was being hit by a wave of neutrinos emitted from a remnant of supernova 1987A. This remnant is not a proper neutron star, but a quark star, an incredibly weird object composed of superdense strange matter. These pulses happen in response to frequent (in human terms) starquakes. As the date of the future visions approaches, a satellite is launched to orbit Pluto so it can give a few days’ warning to Earth (neutrinos have mass so they travel slower than light; a radio message would arrive earlier.) The intent is to create another flashforward.

The final part of the book takes place twenty-one years later and  follows Simcoe’s co-worker Theo Procopides; one of the few remaining scientists at CERN, which was abandoned years earlier. The satellite has flashed a warning, and the LHC needs some repair to activate. Descending into the machinery he finds the embittered husband of a woman who died in the flashforward attempting to sabotage the gear. A chase and fight ensues, and Theo both manages to put down the attacker and prevent his own death.

It turns out that the flashforward transported everyone to the day of the second neutrino burst. People prepare for the flashforward by lying in bed or on the floor; the switch is thrown, and for nearly everyone nothing happens except for an hour of mere unconsciousness. Lloyd, however, experiences a bit of life far into the future, well after the Moon has been turned into a partial Dyson Sphere. After the event, he is offered the chance (along with Nobel laureates from around the world) to partake of a treatment that will allow a form of immortality by means of biomechanical bodies. Lloyd realizes that the flashforward was a connection between two points of quantum connection occurring within the lifetimes of the people involved. Since death severs the connection, only those who were offered the immortality treatment had visions.

This is what makes an awesome science fiction story: smart characters doing smart things, trying to solve a problem that threatens to change everything. It does not, however, make for necessarily compelling television. So, they turned it into a cop show. Simcoe became a side character, the FBI became the stars of the show, and the flashforwards became an attempt by shadowy forces to manipulate the world.

I watched the show. Every episode. It was fun and I’m glad Sawyer got the recognition (and, I’d hope, the money) that he deserved. But it wasn’t the same.

There were a few bits in the book that I just couldn’t get over. The reason that the cameras did not record anything, for example, was reportedly due to unobserved (and unobservable) wave functions. In short: every observed event is the result of a collapsed wave function. The cat in the box might be alive or dead–mathematically, it is both alive and dead–until you look in the box. Then the wave function collapses to a single state: alive or dead.

Sawyer’s premise is that if every human on the planet falls unconscious, then nothing really happens in the sense of  concrete events; what follows for that period of time is mere potentiality of events. Which might make sense mathematically (my Math Fu is not up to that particular task) but doesn’t quite work in the world we all experience. Clearly the universe existed in a concrete, measurable fashion before humans showed up to observe it, before there was such a thing as conscious thought.  I think one can make a good case for the fact of big-brained mammals (dolphins and the great apes, at least) being competent observers. I think one can make a case for the first bacteria being the first observers.

And Sawyer has a thing for immortality. It shows up in a number of his books. Sometimes the subject is parenthetical, as in Starplex and Calculating God, but once in a while it becomes the focus of the story, as in The Terminal Experiment. I admit that I’m years behind in following his books, but I’m eager to see if he ever works through that particular issue, and if so, how.

Anyway . . . we got the Higgs!

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