The Flicker Men | Ted Kosmatka | 2015 | Michael Joseph | 340p | Bought copy | Buy the book
Eric Argus is a quantum physicist, a genius, who has been beaten by life. An alcoholic with no belief in a future, Eric has been given his very last chance to redeem himself and his reputation. An old friend, Jeremy, offers Eric a job at Hansen Research in Massachusetts, a think tank that gives its employees four months to come up with something incredible, original and life-changing – a ‘Project’. During those four months, and once the Project has been approved, the scientists are amply rewarded with money, resources and lab space. If nothing else, Eric will be given the chance to get back on his feet with four months’ of salary.
As Eric watches his new colleagues, so quickly friends, especially Satvik, enthuse over their own projects, he can see no hope. The days pass by quickly, meaninglessly. Until one day Eric decides that, if he can do nothing groundbreaking himself, he can spend the remaining time replicating and observing ‘Feynman’s double slit wave-particle experiment’ which affects light and matter. In this experiment, humans are able to collapse the wave function (don’t ask me what that means) simply by looking at it. In other words, they are aware of it.
Now, while I do not have an inkling of what on earth this experiment is all about – it is explained in the novel but, really, my brain is not a natural receptacle for the principles of quantum physics – at this stage of the book this does not matter at all. Because the significance of the experiment, its philosophical resonance, is as clear as day. When Eric and his colleagues test the experiment on animals and find that they are not able to affect the wave, not even the primates most closely related to mankind, it is clear what conclusions are going to be drawn. The rest of the scientists and the powers behind Hansen Research drop everything else – it is as if the world takes a pause at the enormity of what Eric has proven. Human beings are alone. Nothing else has a soul.
But what does that mean?
When news of the experiment leaks and others seek to use the methodology on groups of humans, even on foetuses, pursuing the theory that it might not even be all human beings who have been ‘chosen’, everything begins to tumble for Eric and Satvik. To make matters worse, it is clear that there are forces in the world who want this experiment stopped. At some point, if he lives that long, Eric will have to meet the Flicker Men.
The Flicker Men is an extraordinary novel that combines truly jawdropping science with a pacey thriller and cat and mouse chase. There are moments when I was spellbound by some of the theories presented as well as some of the consequences. Ted Kosmatka, as shown in Prophet of Bones, has such a talent at writing thrillers fuelled by extreme science. I don’t know how else to describes these kind of scientific theories that have the potential to change the way the laws of physics, the planet and humankind is understood. Powerful stuff! It is extremely ambitious and, for the lay reader at least, feels true (although, to be fair, I wouldn’t have a clue if it is or not).
This is very much a novel of two halves and I preferred the first half which focuses on the scientific revelations and the characters of Eric, Satvik and the other scientists. There were so many possibilities to be explored, so many gobsmacking ways in which this revelation could be pursued, particularly once it is discovered that not all humans are able to affect the wave. The wonder and awe that the scientists feel at what they have discovered is catching. I was blown away by it. But then suddenly the novel went off in a different direction, becoming much more of a thriller on the run, and the fascinating ideas were mostly dropped. But more than that, in the second half I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Everyone was chasing everyone else but that’s about as much as I could glean. I was never able to work out properly who the Flicker Men were and the consequences of the experiment, distorted beyond all recognisable shape, became unfathomable.
My enjoyment in The Flicker Men never floundered but I would have appreciated it even more if the science hadn’t flown completely over my head. I understood the gist of it – and loved the premise – but during the second half there were sections when I might as well have been reading it with my eyes shut, my confusion compounded by the novel changing direction altogether. Nevertheless, from beginning to end, The Flicker Men is very hard to put down and confirmed me in my belief, established by the excellent Prophet of Bones, that I will always be fascinated to read any novel by Ted Kosmatka, even if I don’t quite understand it. I’m certainly more than willing to give it my best.
Prophet of Bones