No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, April 13, 2012

2012/09: FlashForward -- Robert J. Sawyer

For almost three whole minutes there wasn't a single conscious mind on Earth — no one, anywhere, to actually observe the creation of the Higgs boson. Not only that, there was no one available to observe anything. That's why all the videotapes seem to be blank. They look blank — like they've got nothing but electronic snow on them. But suppose that's not snow — suppose instead that the cameras accurately recorded what they saw: an unresolved world. (p. 249)

FlashForward, published in 1999 and set in 2009, was the basis for a single-season TV series, which I haven't seen. As far as I can tell, though (research! I checked the episode guide on Wikipedia), the novel is considerably more concerned with the 'bigger picture' -- philosophy, quantum physics and the Higgs Boson.

The premise is simple: a LHC (Large Hadron Collider) experiment, designed to trap the elusive Higgs boson, "caused the human consciousness to jump ahead twenty-one years for a period of two minutes". That is, every human being (and, as far as anyone can tell, many apes) blacks out and gets a two-minute preview of their future life.

It's not neatly labelled: triangulating the precise two minutes that's been previewed is a complex task, requiring the collation of millions of accounts. And it's not strictly true to say that everyone's consciousness jumps ahead: some people simply black out. Some of the visions are profoundly unsettling: a man sees himself and his wife, but the wife isn't his current fiancee; an aspiring literary author sees himself serving drinks in an overpriced tourist cafe; a physicist is driven to investigate his own murder, which seems to have taken place in the ring -- but he doesn't box...

The philosophy of the novel (which draws on notions from Lloyd Tipler's fabulous The Physics of Immortality, as well as Heisenberg's ideas about observability and the classic paradoxes of free will) is fascinating: but what really struck me was the datedness of Sawyer's future. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! In 1999's near future, we have broadcasts being watched via VHS; someone being summoned to take a phone call; a strangely retro internet, and the persistence of the floppy disk.

Easy to mock: but this 2009 also has two space shuttles in orbit (one American, one Japanese); spectacles being a quaint affectation due to the success of laser keratomy; most books being sold print-on-demand. And the glimpses of 2030 show a world where the Queen's dead, the British monarchy dissolved, and an African-American man is President of the United States. (Sadly, there's been no second coming or mission to Mars.)

There's something about the futurology in this novel that reminds me of Golden Age SF: the author stepping outside the narrative for a moment to give explanation and context; fragments of news and culture to sketch out a changed world; that juxtaposition of the marvellous and the mundane. The second LHC experiment does produce the Higgs boson -- but to the disgust of the general public, who were hoping for another glimpse of their future lives. "You cheated the entire planet!"

This is yet another novel where the ending could be interpreted in one of two ways. Oooh, perhaps it depends on the observer ...

Fun, pacy and thought-provoking, even if some aspects of the futurology are more entertaining with hindsight than Sawyer intended. (And he did get the Pope's name right!)

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