Improbable, Adam Fawer

Harper Torch, 2005, 447 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-073678-1

Before even discussing the content of this novel, let’s first congratulate the designers of the mass-market paperback edition of the book for making me pick it up. I’m not exaggerating: I must have passed over the trade paperback of Adam Fawer’s Improbable a dozen times, but it just took one look at the lenticular 3D full-page mass-market cover to convince me that I had to have this book in my collection. It’s a beautiful curiosity, and a hit whenever I show it to other people.

But the novel, you say, what about the novel?

Well, the novel itself is just as unusual as its cover: A present-day suspense from a popular fiction imprint that’s really science-fiction in disguise, with enough hard mathematics to quality as hard-SF yet over-plotted like an overgrown thriller.

We realize early on that protagonist David Caine is an exceptional young man, even if his gambling problem earns him the attention of the local mob in the first chapter. His formerly-promising academic career derailed by debilitating epileptic episodes, his ability for calculating probabilities is no match for a run of bad cards and so Caine agrees to an experimental treatment in the hopes of paying back his massive debt and regaining some measure of control over his life. But the treatment has unforeseen effects: before long, Caine can calculate the future with enough precision to make predictions, and change his actions based on what he foresees. And as other forces take an interest in his newfound talents, he comes to realize that there are much, much bigger secrets out there…

In order to explain its unlikely premise, Improbable features more exposition scenes than you’ll find in a typical hard-SF novel. Statistics and quantum mechanics don’t come easily to the vast majority of people, after all, but Improbable features a few delicious exposition scenes (including one literal lecture) to explain it all. Don’t worry: They’re a delight to read, even for those with or without significant mathematical backgrounds.

Where the novel falters, actually, is in the overabundance of more familiar thriller elements. There are, at some point, over four different organizations tracking down Caine, including an improbable number of double-agents and mercenaries. It gets confusing, and the novel wastes far too much time keeping those strands moving when it should be concentrating on its more unique elements.

But those elements indeed make up for a memorable reading experience. Probabilities and quantum mechanics have been a staple of Science-Fiction literature for a long time, especially when used as a way to meditate on fate, predestination and the nature of choices available to us. One of the most memorable moments in Greg Egan’s Quarantine involved a chapter beginning in a different universe than the one resulting from the previous chapter. In a more fantastical setting, Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book played plotting games with decreasing levels of entropy. More recently, the last act of Elizabeth Bear’s Undertow offered a scene in which various possibilities were described before consciously settling upon one outcome. Without suggesting any filiation, Improbable has a number of equivalents scenes, including a spectacular moment in which Caine sees the probabilities in disposing of a powerful explosive. Smaller, less spectacular demonstrations of improbability also carry their own conceptual kick, such as a series of events leading to a non-stop train ride from one destination to another. Isn’t it cool when the novelist can fiddle with his plotting in plain view of the audience?

On the other hand, some elements overplay their welcome. A lengthy sequence tying a lottery win into a grander plan for humanity feel forced and a bit sadistic for the victims of the events. The slingshot ending inevitably delves into mysticism, a twist which may not be entirely earned by the overwrought thriller mechanics of the rest of the novel.

A tighter plot would have clarified the importance of other elements and made the reading experience more satisfying, but Improbable‘s sheer originality and genre-bending audaciousness make it good enough to recommend even with those flaws. The lenticular paperback cover isn’t just a gimmick: It’s a fairly good indication that there’s something unusual under that cover.

(On the other hand, don’t be surprised if the cover actually makes it harder to read the novel: I don’t consider myself a particularly tactile person, and yet I found the sensation of the plastic strips under my fingertips far too close to numbness for my tastes, and ended up holding the novel by its first few pages in order to read without distraction.)

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