Title: The Flicker Men
Author: Ted Kosmatka
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co
Publication date: July 2015
Hardcover: 352 pages
A quantum physicist shocks the world with a startling experiment, igniting a struggle between science and theology, free will and fate, and antagonizing forces not known to exist.
Eric Argus is a washout. His prodigious early work clouded his reputation and strained his sanity. But an old friend gives him another chance, an opportunity to step back into the light.
With three months to produce new research, Eric replicates the paradoxical double-slit experiment to see for himself the mysterious dual nature of light and matter. A simple but unprecedented inference blooms into a staggering discovery about human consciousness and the structure of the universe.
His findings are celebrated and condemned in equal measure. But no one can predict where the truth will lead. And as Eric seeks to understand the unfolding revelations, he must evade shadowy pursuers who believe he knows entirely too much already.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print
Eric Argus is a man at the end of his rope. A once-promising quantum physicist, Eric has fallen far and hard from grace following a psychotic break at his last job. A highly functional alcoholic, Eric also grapples with depression and suicidal thoughts–when we meet Doctor Argus, he’s staring down the barrel of his father’s gun in drunk contemplation.
But he hasn’t pulled the trigger yet. Now, Eric has a chance to get back on his feet, thanks to an old friend manages promising scientific minds at a think-tank research facility, and who goes out on a limb to hire Eric for a three-month trial. Despite the chance at redemption–which Eric does take seriously–he refuses to work on his old quantum computing research. (It was, after all, that research and the solution to an unsolvable problem that drove Eric to disaster.) Instead, each day, Eric drives to work, assists other scientist colleagues with their research without making any in-roads on his own still-undefined project.
That all changes when Eric stumbles across a new shipment of material containing a photon gun and observation recording apparatus. ‘But that’s already been done before,’ everyone tells Eric–the duality of light behaving as both a particle and a wave is well-established and researched. Still, Eric wants to see it for himself and decides to recreate Feynman’s experiment: light passes through two slits and displays a waveform interference pattern until one tries to measure the interference pattern and the wave collapses back to particle behavior. Eric has always been fascinated with this experiment and its implications–suggesting that the act of observation profoundly affects the results of the experiment.
So, Eric sets up the double-slit experiment and records results. Everything behaves as expected: observation and measurement of the experiment results in collapse of the wave function. So then Eric decides to test observation–if the wave collapses upon observation, is this true for any observer? Will amphibians, or reptiles collapse the wave? What about large hunting predators, or intelligent primates? What about a fetus?
Eric Argus’s discovery–that only some observers cause the wave to collapse, but not others–throws the world into chaos as other powerful figures try to harness his work to make their own political and spiritual agendas stick.
And then there are the other creatures who notice Eric’s work. Those who walk in the shadows between worlds, who ruthlessly silence those threats to their own ends.
The Flicker Men is the second novel that I’ve had the pleasure of reading from Ted Kostmatka; I deeply loved The Games, his book on genetically engineered monster cage fighting Olympics, so when I was offered a copy of The Flicker Men, I hastily accepted. Except that I was offered a copy of this book back in 2015, where it has sat languishing on my TBR shelf until just now. (I had just come back from holiday break and after consuming an unhealthy amount of epic and YA fantasy, I needed a break–and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a good sci-fi thriller.) The Flicker Men delivered. Big time.
This is a novel with an irresistible premise: a profound scientific discovery posits a possible answer to the age-old question of the soul. From a pure science fiction perspective, The Flicker Men rocks. Rooted in a very famous, very well-known experiment, the novel takes some artistic license with the concept of “observation” and the quantum measurement problem, arguing that the act of observation causes matter to change its behavior. For me, this is the best kind of SFF: taking established science, then twisting and extending its applications to fictional extremes. (Note that while quantum consciousness is a cool sci-fi idea, “observation” doesn’t really work in the way that it’s described in The Flicker Men–but don’t hold that against the book, this is sci-fi after all.) I love the simplicity and elegance of this premise, more than anything else.
Crichton-esque in style, Kosmatka effortlessly weaves science fiction elements with big action scenes and relatable characters, balancing thriller/genre fiction with literary restraint. From an overall plotting and world-defining perspective, The Flicker Men obviously delivers–the more surprising and welcome development was the powerful characterization of Eric Argus and his colleagues. Usually the morose, navel-gazing, suicidal, alcoholic, white male protagonist type doesn’t work for me–but Eric is given nuance and depth. We readers learn of his history–his father’s history of substance abuse and slow death by liver failure and blindness, which he decides to opt-out of instead by way of gun; his brilliant mother’s coping mechanism and her own history of mental illness–making Argus more human and sympathetic. Writing from the perspective of an alcoholic main character, who white knuckles every single day, is no easy feat; making that character someone readers care about is even harder.
My main complaint is that the second half of the book feels markedly different from the irresistible promise of the first act. From the tension and excitement around Argus’s discovery that different observers cause waveform collapse and the implications that this research has on the world, Kosmatka shifts gears and focuses on the eponymous flicker men–interdimensional/multiverse traversing creatures with their own shadowy agendas. And while that’s fully awesome, I felt like the novel’s ultimate climax and resolution was overly simplistic and cinematic-explosion-heavy, and lost the heart of what made this book so interesting to begin with.
Still, The Flicker Men is one of the best sci-fi thrillers I’ve read in a very long time, and I absolutely recommend it.
Rating: 8 – Excellent