by Robert J. Sawyer
Ace, $27.00, 342pp
Published: March 2016
Jim Marchuk is a tenured professor at a university, happily teaching his psychology classes; until he is faced with a fact related to his dead grandfather that he should have known but didn’t. Further investigation convinced him that he was missing six months of memory when he was a student in the university, some fifteen years earlier.
Jim has a process by which he is able to correctly identify a psychopath. This process is respected and he frequently gives expert testimony in court. The author spends some time defining for us just what exactly is a psychopath. Most of us attribute murderous intent - courtesy of Hollywood - to all psychopaths; which is not true. Some psychopaths are simply mean or narcissistic or controlling. So the story takes an ironic turn when Jim connects with an ex-girlfriend, someone who knew him during those missing six months. She is noticeably suspicious of him and it takes him a great deal of finesse to convince her to speak to him; but when she does, she informs him that he behaved heinously during that period of time - like a psychopath. A chance encounter with a former schoolmate of the same period produced even more hatred and suspicion; obviously relating to events that he can’t remember. He convinces the old girlfriend, Kayla, that he is a different person and a relationship blossoms. It turns out that Kayla has a brother who’s been in a coma, for unknown reasons, since the same year that Jim lost his memories and they went to the same university. Through the help of a memory specialist, Jim begins to recover those lost memories and he figures out that he was the subject of a rash experiment. The memories that he recovers are horrific and unbelievable; forcing him to confront his oldest and dearest friend about his culpability.
Kayla is working on quantum physics of consciousness and her research has enabled a breakthrough in defining psychopathy including a process to identify psychopaths. Together, Jim and Kayla find evidence that there are more psychopaths in the population than ever imagined and that sane, ethical people are in the minority. In counterpoint, the reader sees current events unfolding with a conflict between the US and Russia that may embroil the whole world in a nuclear holocaust.
As the whole world holds its breath waiting to see who will drop a nuke first, Jim and Kayla are frantic to apply their process and stop the worldwide insanity. But the personal cost to both themselves and Kayla’s daughter has to be reckoned. Based on his personal beliefs, Jim is ready to deploy their process regardless of who will suffer and even if the process will render both him and Kayla certifiable psychopaths. As Kayla does all she can to stop both Jim and the process from changing the whole world; the world is teetering on the brink of nuclear war.
The science is fascinating and for a while, I was totally taken in with the concept of different levels of consciousness and how it could explain human behavior: why some people are good and altruistic, others are simply uncaring and thoughtless, and others exhibit true evil. I started to imagine how cool it would be to have a diagnostic tool to identify those groups. Then we’d know at the primaries if we were voting in a psychopath. But then, as the story progressed, I imagined segregation and discrimination on a whole new, and horrible, level. It was very thought-provoking.
I enjoyed watching Jim uncover his past and try to apply the experience to his contemporary world. I really liked the scientific explanations which were seeded throughout the story rather than in large expository lumps - which are never fun to read. The plot was engaging although I thought the tension was too passive. However, based on the theme, it would not have been appropriate for a chase scene or a Bond-type villain. It was based mostly on the shock value of recovered memories and the revelations of what it could mean today. Again, I found it very thought-provoking; and isn’t that what we like about science fiction? I can usually recommend Sawyer without reservation and this book is no exception. ~~ Catherine Book