Superposition: A quantum-physics courtroom thriller

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews Superposition by David Walton science fiction book reviewsSuperposition by David Walton

David Walton’s new book Superposition is billed by the publisher as a “quantum physics murder mystery.” Clearly, Walton loves quantum physics and can explain its concepts in an understandable way. Choosing alternating first-person narrators was a stroke of brilliance, upping the suspense, at least in the beginning as the story unfolds.

Jacob Kelly is a physicist who resigned from the New Jersey Super-Collider (Yes! New Jersey has the biggest super-collider in the world in this book!). Now he teaches at Swarthmore College. A former colleague of his, Brian Vanderhall, comes to Kelly’s house, claiming he has made an extraordinary breakthrough, which he has. Things don’t go well in the meeting. A day later Vanderhall is dead, and Jacob is the obvious suspect. Jacob must work to get acquitted, and also contain the result of Brian’s experiment. Jacob’s brother-in-law Marek and his daughter Alessandra help him.

There are three parts to this book: a traditional science fiction, a conventional murder mystery and a courtroom drama.

When Walton is playing with quantum physics, this book sparkles. In the “quantum intelligence” that Brian contacted, we have a genuinely alien character, a being whose thoughts, fears and motives we do not understand; in fact, it may be that we cannot understand. The probability waves, the flipping coins, the cats in steel-lined boxes, are all delicious mind-candy. This part of the story worked very well for me for the most part, aided by Walton’s good descriptions of quantum theories. The probability wave plot point faltered at the end, looking remarkably like traditional fantasy magic to me, but I can live with that.

Walton lays his clues pretty well and plays fair with the reader in the mystery element. This means that experienced mystery readers are going to figure out the identity of the murderer before Jacob does. To be fair, Jacob has a lot on his mind. He does not actually deduce who the killer is; he is handed a clue with no effort on his part that solves the story. This actually happens twice, but I’ve read plenty of mysteries where this kind of thing happened, too. I think the mystery part is pretty well constructed.

The courtroom sections, however, are static and implausible to me. Very early on, Jacob’s defense attorney stops cross-examining witnesses, because he has a star witness he thinks will blow up the prosecution’s case. Because we know what is going on, the endless parade of police officers and forensics people lacks tension. Even when we find out some of the witnesses are lying, it doesn’t add much to this part of the book. Jacob, whose freedom is in the hands of twelve regular people, to whom his attorney must explain superposition and probability waves, apparently never once looks at those twelve people. There is not a single description of the jury, although we are told some things about the judge, and there are a few world-building details, like “camera flies” and “smart boards.”

The prosecutor is portrayed like a circus dog in a tutu; he sneers, struts, grins and smirks, all intended to make him seem villainous. In the few criminal court proceedings I’ve observed, I have never seen a prosecutor be anything other than professional in the courtroom, so I don’t know why Walton gave us this caricature; a real prosecutor, doing his job, would have been more effective.

Jacob is portrayed as a character with a nasty temper, and that is convincing. His arrogance and condescension make him unlikable, though, and listening him to complain about how he was beaten out of funding by less competent scientists gets boring fast:

My muscles kept clenching and unclenching, just like they used to do when I had to sit and listen to a scientist lie through his teeth about the worthlessness of some competing experiment in an attempt to raise the value of his own research…

And again:

…but the project had been scuttled in favor of an experiment controlled by another colleague who was poor at experimentation but gifted at playing the game of politics…

On the other hand, the only scientists we meet, except maybe for Jacob, are corrupt, so perhaps he’s onto something. Or maybe Walton took refuge in stereotypes rather than thinking about reasons why a gifted physicist would leave a job at the largest super-collider in the world.

Secondary characters, notably Marek and Alessandra, are well drawn. Early in the book there is a scene where Marek holds his own in a discussion about the origin of the quantum intelligence.

“Interference from another wave pattern,” I said.
“Yes, but this time, the pattern wasn’t predictable. The oscillating frequencies kept getting higher. Finally, I took a look at the values…”
“Prime numbers,” Marek said, jumping back into the conversation. “They were a list of primes.”
Bran looked startled. “How did you know?”
Marek rolled his eyes. “That is what the aliens always send, don’t they? In all the books and movies. Primes don’t occur in nature, so if you get primes, you know it’s from something intelligent.”

Stilted dialogue and bits of lackluster writing made me like the book less than I wanted to. At one point, Jacob tells his daughter to “hold her tongue.” Who talks that way? Earlier in the book, he asks her which is her dominant hand and she replies, “I’m right-handed, as you well know.” Similarly, little time is spent on the technological and sociological changes in Walton’s near-future world, leading to awkward glitches, as when a physicist wants to demonstrate something and asks Jacob’s lawyer if he has a coin. Walton then pauses to explain that coins have been removed from circulation several years earlier — a fact that begs the question “Why?” — then has the lawyer find an old penny that he carries “for luck.” Why make that unnecessary detour at all?

Still, at 300 pages, Superposition is a brisk read with good information and interesting ideas. Remember that I am mostly a fantasy reader, a person whose eyes glaze over when someone is into Minute 15 of their 40-minute “simplified” explanation about how the quantum computing would work. Walton’s book was perfect for someone like me, introducing real information along with an intriguing story. A sequel, called Supersymmetry, will be published by Pyr in September.

Publication Date: April 7, 2015. A QUANTUM PHYSICS MURDER MYSTERY. A Mind-Bending, Near-Future, Science Fiction Technothriller. Jacob Kelley’s family is turned upside down when an old friend turns up, waving a gun and babbling about an alien quantum intelligence. The mystery deepens when the friend is found dead in an underground bunker…apparently murdered the night he appeared at Jacob’s house. Jacob is arrested for the murder and put on trial. As the details of the crime slowly come to light, the weave of reality becomes ever more tangled, twisted by a miraculous new technology and a quantum creature unconstrained by the normal limits of space and matter. With the help of his daughter, Alessandra, Jacob must find the true murderer before the creature destroys his family and everything he loves.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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6 comments

  1. I find quantum physics fascinating (if maddeningly frustrating), so I’ll have to pick this up despite the trial issues. Thanks!

  2. My concern with this book is that I don’t understand quantum physics at all, and I wasn’t sure if this would be a stumbling block with regards to my ability to understand anything going on in the story. But if Walton can write in layman’s terms, then I’m game.

    • Jana, he makes it understandable. That was my concern as well, but he weaves it into the plot in such a fundamental way that you are “getting it” as you read along.

  3. Quantum physics is one of my favorite SF topics.

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