Superposition by David Walton

Pyr, 2015, 302 p.

 Superposition cover

Told in alternating chapters headed Up-Spin and Down-Spin – until the text’s narration merges in Chapter 40 – Superposition is an exploration of quantum theory and how it might manifest in the macroscopic world if its effects were to apply there. At the same time it is a crime story with a murder at its heart. The victim, Brian Vanderhall, was a physicist who has managed to find a way to interact with creatures from the quantum world, using their knowledge to build a Higgs projector, which can locally alter the Higgs field, thus allowing bullets, for example, to be fired at an object and pass around it, plus various other might-as-well-be-magic occurrences.

The Up-Spin chapters see Jacob Kelley relating the events surrounding the crime and its aftermath, the Down-Spin ones depict Kelley’s trial for the murder. At first the chapters are set at different times but they eventually become contemporaneous. Irruptions from the quantum world have meant that two sets of Kelley – and some other characters – can exist at one time, their probability functions supposedly spread out (superposed) in the manner of sub-atomic particles. Quite how this squares with there only being two – or at most three – versions of each is left unexplained, or, more charitably, a form of artistic licence.

As might be imagined there is a plethora of information dumping and explanation. For this, handy non-Physics-knowledgeable characters provide useful sounding boards. While necessary, these explanations do tend to the obtrusive and there are occasional other narrative infelicities.

The back-cover blurb from William Hertling, “Walton’s captivating writing will draw you in, the murder mystery will keep you reading and you’ll finish with a better understanding of quantum physics,” is wrong on all three counts. Walton’s writing is up to the task but rarely more than workmanlike, the murder mystery is the least of the attractions and the last will only apply if you didn’t know anything about it already. (Arguably even if you do. As Niels Bohr said, anyone who isn’t profoundly shocked by quantum physics hasn’t understood it.) The text also betrays some unreconstructed ideas about both the triggering of female sexual arousal and maternal instinct. The plot depends for its continuation on the lack of collapse of the probability functions of both Kelley and his daughter Alex/Alessandra yet other characters not so necessary to it revert to the one form relatively quickly.

In addition Walton represents the “split” characters as mirror images of each other. Down-Spin Kelley – and one version of daughter Alex – have been active throughout. They will require to have eaten during this time. Like most other biological molecules carbohydrates, fats and proteins are compounds which are chiral (ie exhibit handedness – all in the same sense.) A mirror image body would not be able to metabolise food molecules inverse to it (the only ones available) since its relevant processing enzymes work only with the correct handedness, and hence it would starve. This is not a problem Roger Zelazny avoided in his novel Doorways in the Sand: he addressed it straight on. Walton doesn’t even seem to be aware of it.

Superposition is an entertaining enough tale – the courtroom scenes are well realised, if familiar from countless screen dramas. And it does fulfil the function of the detective novel. If you want a primer on quantum Physics dressed up as crime fiction this is the book for you.

Pedant’s corner:- “firmly established liver mortis” (liver mortis? Not rigor mortis?) “It wasn’t until I walked around one of the card tables that I saw him.” (saw the body, rather than “him” would have had more impact,) “‘What it doing?’” (What’s,) “the stream was still projecting, a show about the real-life exploits of…” (no comma,) “like an auctioneer valuating items for sale” (USian can be so ugly at times; the word is valuing,) “and a hanging model of the super collider hanging above our heads” (well, a hanging model can only hang, can’t it?) imposter (impostor,) “each of them wavered between themselves and their double” (their doubles.) “But hadn’t Elena and Claire and Sean had already resolved…?” (omit “had”.)

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