Supersymmetry by David Walton

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David Walton


(Pyr, Sept. 2015, Tpb, 300 pp.)


Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

Supersymmetry follows closely on the heels of its predecessor Superposition (Pyr, April 2015) as another riveting speculative-tech SF thriller, which contains as its central element a series of conjectures arising from the still-unknown and ephemeral nature of quantum mechanics.

One need not have read the former to thoroughly understand and enjoy Supersymmetry, for the essential information from Superposition is easily incorporated as needed and only where necessary, allowing the reader to feel they have missed nothing. Both books stand on their own and can be read as independent, stand alone novels, both story arcs successfully completed individually.

Superposition was highly praised by the likes of:

David Brin: “Walton delivers fast-paced action, suspense, and riveting mystery—all of it spinning about a core of vivid, speculative science. Enjoy some tense, imaginative fun.”

Long time and now former editor of Analog Stanley Schmidt writes of Superposition: “David Walton takes a huge leap of imagination and spins an engaging, sometimes dizzying, web of ‘What if?’”

Hugo-winning SF author Will McIntosh echoes this with:Superposition is a wild ride into the quantum world, a fabulous twist on the murder mystery. In Walton’s hands, physics comes to life, literally! Like nothing you’ve ever read before.”

And multiple Hugo and Nebula winner Mike Resnick also concurs with: Superposition is a fine blending of high-tech science fiction and the mystery novel, a concept that Isaac Asimov might have come up with were he alive today.”

Such high praise is difficult to live up to, so does Supersymmetry warrant the praise of its predecessor? In a word, yes.

As in the first novel, the invention of the Higgs projector gets the plot rolling. It is an experimental quantum computer developed by a brilliant but neurotic physicist who has turned one of its newly discovered properties into a military weapon whereby soldiers in this near-future scenario are able to kill at a distance (around or through material objects such as buildings) in a conflict currently being waged in Turkey. If successful, a single soldier would have the capability to kill, at no risk to himself, countless numbers of the enemy. The Higgs projector has created a small wormhole into a “baby quantum universe” and its operator is able to control, to a certain extent, the strange quantum energies allowed to enter our universe. At a demonstration where top military brass and elected officials are present something goes wrong, and the quantum creature known as the varcolac (thought to have been defeated in Superposition) is again released. Far more than merely mindless and undirected energy from the quantum universe, the varcolac is a sentient alien entity focused on its own survival in ours, a creature with the ability to possess and control human hosts, imbuing them with its power to kill with scarcely more than a directed thought. And nothing can stop it. Though the term “varcolac” might seem a corny name for the quantum creature, it is actually an apt one, for it is a name taken from creatures from Romanian folklore that appear only during the dark of night and coming from a “mirror world.”

One of those present at the demonstration is Alex Kelley, who works at the New Jersey Super Collider High Energy Lab as a physicist turned engineer. She and her sister Sandra were “born” from a single individual named Alessandra Kelley, in an incident from the first book, and were created as distinct persons when a standing wave function failed to collapse in the effort to send the varcolac back to its own universe. In essence, an entire new timeline was brought into existence, and though they are aware they were formerly one person, they now exist with separate “real” family histories and memories. Sound a bit confusing? It is, until the author explains in as clear language as possible some of the possible effects and complications of what we currently know of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, quantum foam, collapsing wave fronts, quantum entanglement, and all the rest of it. Dropped in where appropriate so the reader has a chance to absorb these counter-intuitive concepts a little at a time, it makes for a fascinating read, as strange effects and complications are mixed in with the otherwise tightly-woven storyline.

As mentioned, Alex Kelley is present at the NJSC High Energy Lab demonstration when things go wrong. The varcolac has escaped and is murdering everyone in grisly fashion as swiftly as it can. No one except Alex and the paranoid physicist has any idea what it happening, so when Alex kills a high-ranking government official who has been possessed by the varcolac, it appears that she has simply turned traitor and assassinated him. Knowing that cameras have captured what looks like her murder of the official, she goes on the run. It is at this point where things get interesting. Where does she run, with the force and power of myriad government agencies after her? To whom does she give her trust, for only one or two individuals know of the varcolac and would believe her story, and wouldn’t they now be closely watched as well? In the meantime, the varcolac is loose and hunting for those who had defeated it the first time around, which means her retired physicist father and sister are in the utmost immediate danger. And the varcolac cares not what monstrous harm it causes in our universe, for it can destroy entire sections of cities at will.

As with all good thrillers, there is also mystery, high-stakes danger, and adventure aplenty, not least of which involves a certain individual imprisoned for her actions in the first novel, someone who holds the key to sending the varcolac back to its universe, but who, like the neurotic physicist, has personal gain (with a dollop of revenge) in mind and cares not for larger consequences. Obstacle upon obstacle is placed in front of Alex as she evades the authorities, seeks hidden answers at great peril not only to herself but to her sister Sandra, for if she is successful they might once again be consolidated as a single individual—but which one would survive? That both Alex and Sandra are aware of this possibility leads to one of the novel’s more intriguing and sensitive human concerns. The reader comes to feel for both of them, and as the front story unfolds, the reader can’t help but imagine how he or she might feel if placed in such a circumstance—where a random quantum event might, in the blink of an eye, negate your very existence. A nice touch on the part of the author to ratchet the tension level even higher on a personal level.

Since the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (one of the founders of quantum mechanics) first theorized his now famous Uncertainty Principle in 1927 (since revised as our understanding of quantum mechanics—still slight as it is—has evolved) there have been countless SF stories and novels playing quite creatively with its perhaps ultimately unknowable nature, many utilizing but a single aspect of it as a springboard to ground whatever story the author had in mind (Frederik Pohl’s 1986 novel The Coming of the Quantum Cats comes to mind for but one example, where Pohl’s real story deals satirically with the social issue of Nurture vs. Nature). But in Supersymmetry Walton digs his feet in, looks you straight in the eye, grabs you by the shoulders and never lets go as his imagination runs wild with several of the more bizarre speculations conjured from what we think we know about the quantum world and its properties. It’s all fanciful imagining to be sure, but coupled with the human side of the story makes for a read the likes of which come along all too infrequently. Supersymmetry is one of the best examples of the hard science fiction-thriller combination I’ve read in a long while.

David Walton works as a Lockheed Martin engineer with a top secret government security clearance. A previous novel, Terminal Mind, won the 2009 Philip K. Dick Award for the distinguished original science fiction paperback published for the first time in 2008.

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Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award six times and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.