The Next Chapter

Robert J. Sawyer on science fiction and psychopaths

The beloved sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer on his latest novel, and what might happen when human conscience can be switched off and on.
Robert J. Sawyer is a Canadian science fiction success story. Quantum Night is his latest novel.

In Robert J. Sawyer's latest novel, Quantum Night, psychopaths are everywhere. An experimental psychologist develops a technique for identifying them, but it turns out that he himself was the subject of an experiment that went off the rails. This novel is on the Canada Reads 2017 longlist.

Sawyer is a Canadian science fiction success story, with 23 novels under his belt, a television adaptation and many awards and translations. His books mix science and ethics with page-turning, accessible storylines. He joined Shelagh Rogers in the studio in Toronto to talk about the new book.


The worldwide gold standard for diagnosing psychopathy is a Canadian invention. Robert D. Hare, who is now a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, devised this checklist, and came up with 20 characteristics. Glibness, superficiality, pathological lying, sexual promiscuity, risk-taking behaviour — all of these things are there. The one that everyone thinks of, which is violence, serial killing, is not on the list. It's a means to an end. It might be a thrill-seeking behaviour, if that's what thrills you. But there are all sorts of people who clearly score high on Hare's checklist who get just as much pleasure out of ruining people's lives in the workplace, for example.


I think most people are indifferent in their evaluation of what is good or bad. I started wondering why it is that people line up behind charismatic leaders. It's easy to understand the emergence of a figure who's narcissistic and compelling. But why people follow this person mindlessly — that was the hard question to me. In addition to psychopaths, Quantum Night is also a novel about literally thoughtless people, without inner voices, thoughts in their heads. I'm fascinated by the possibility, but there are huge numbers of people who really are just waiting to be pushed in one direction or the other. If everyone decides to do something good, like we're all going to clean up litter in a park today, that's great. But it can also go in a very dark, negative direction, and that's what the novel explores.


One of the things that science fiction gets to do is thought experiments about the human condition that would be impractical or unethical to conduct in real life. Suppose we could turn peoples' consciences on and off at will. What would we find out? That's the thought experiment in [this novel]. My postulate is that people who attain a conscience, an inner voice that nags at them — not regain, but attain for the first time — will think that things were a lot simpler before they had that conscience.

Robert J. Sawyer's comments have been edited and condensed.