on 18 November 2011
I knew what to expect, because I had seen an early draft of this book when it was on HarperCollins' website Authonomy. I remember feeling ambivalent about it; I could tell there was much going for it, but also things that bothered me.
Now I have read the entire book in its final form, called Quintessence, and Andrew Meek has put together a really strong debut novel.
Alexander Staalman, physicist, husband, grieving man, an altogether human character, takes us on a tour of mental breakdown, quantum physics, cosmology, and the deepest questions possible: what is this thing called Life, and how can we, conglomerations of atoms consisting of mainly void space, be able to think about it?
The eminent plus points of the book are (in no particular order) depth, honesty, force, intellect, inquisitiveness and beauty.
By depth I mean the way Meek has invested countless hours and massive effort to write a book that manages bind together quantum physics and cosmology, as well as everything that walls in between these two extremes. Staalman ponders believably and interestingly how it can be possible for humans to think - it's just electric current flowing between synapses that are mere atoms in close proximity. And is thinking real? If someone has a thought, is that thought real? Is anything actually and verifiably real?
Honesty is apparent in Staalman's anguished quest to set right a horrible injustice rendered on his beloved wife, Millie. The guilt he experiences over the pain he caused her is rendered in such detail that the reader is wishing to absolve him all the time, but the need for Staalman to correct past deeds, which is of course not possible in our concept of time, forces him to think about time in terms of non-linearity. This is where the book gets to be somewhat challenging, but the author invests sufficient time and space to illustrate his ideas, and all becomes clear at some point.
The force of the book is in the mental breakdowns Stallman experiences. I have often wondered what it must be like to have one of these, and after reading this book I can safely say I wish such events happening to no one. Meek writes with such terrifying clarity of what it's like to feel sanity slip away that the text actually had me shivering more than once.
Intellectually this is one of the most challenging books I've read in a while. Sure, I am a longtime fan of Carl Sagan and cosmology, and I have read all the reports on quantum teleport and how Schrödinger's Cat must be doing these days, but man... this book gets you going really. Meek binds together thought experiments and real-life science so effortlessly that I found myself checking Wikipedia every five pages. I have nothing but admiration for his capability of bringing all of this together.
Inquisitiveness is a natural part of this book. We all wonder about life from time to time and then check to see what's on the telly tonight, but Andrew Meek sets the table for a full feast of questions. How can it be that when he thinks, then writes, then sets to type, uploads the book, and as I download it, I get to see what he thought? But surely all is just electric charges between our synapses! There can't be anything more than electric signals - or is there?
And the beauty... there is beauty in this book. It's in the way electrons spin around the nucleus, and how these atoms self-assemble into molecules, substances, cognitive humans, solar systems and ultimately galaxies. All is from the same source, and yet, nothing is alike to another substance. Alexander's and Millie's love story is hauntingly beautiful too, and even if this seems weird to say, I'll say there's beauty in Alexander's madness.
If you like your books thought-provoking, interesting, fact-laden to the hilt, this is for you. On the other hand, if you are up for an easy read, pass this one by. I definitely hope you will be of the former kind and give this book a serious attempt.
If I may nitpick, I would say this book would benefit from one more run-down by an experiences editor. There's a smidgen too much of stuff in it, and some typo issues. None of this is critical; it is much more important to just read the book.
HarperCollins, are you paying attention?