“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is a piece of advice from my parental and semi-Quaker upbringing I try to follow, even though I fail.1 I try to save the bulk of my vitriol for the obviously abhorrent fringes of society, or at least the people who can take it because they’re already choking on success, and won’t care or be affected by what I have to say. Even then, I’m a little soft on writers, and particularly fiction writers these days, because I may have a novel coming out if my editor doesn’t kill herself after having to read it. It’s tough to put yourself out there, and even though I’m over all the people who have told me to die for the sin of being me and expressing that, I know it’s difficult to read an unsolicited essay about how awful you are.
Douglas E. Richards is doing just fine right now, and hanging out at the top of the New York Times best seller list, so now that I’ve humanized myself I can get on with explaining how Quantum Lens is the technical, artistic, and existential equivalent of an infected genital wound.
Prologue (of the book, not another preamble thing)
“The hellish desert was an endless sea of desolation, which still evoked a primal sense of unease in Salib.” This is the beginning of the second paragraph. The first paragraph explained that Salib was driving. The word “still” will remain forever unexpla—no, sorry, it’s explained in the next sentence how “human progress had defanged this arid wasteland” but “traversing its scorched sands added to the tense air of foreboding.” Putting aside how foreboding pretty much guarantees tense air, just switching these two sentences would make me not have to reread the paragraph to figure out why “still” was in it.
“Hellish desert” shows up again a couple of pages later. There’s a running theme of grabbing a word or phrase and sticking to it. Like that person who knows three Family Guy quotes and says them all twice a night.
Show don’t tell
The first thing you notice about the main characters is that despite their advanced degrees and super-genius status, all of them talk like they’ve just come home from a year of freshman seminar courses, none of them can shut up, and that’s basically the book right there. “Show don’t tell” is writing advice that usually refers to the style used to describe action, but here the problem is most of the time the characters are sitting around telling each other things ad vomitum. For every page of action there are twenty dedicated to expository conversation in such exciting places as … the restaurant! The plane! The island getaway! I think that’s all of them.
And for as much as the book is people talking and the narration describing hellish deserts, the descriptive powers seem to cop out midway through every scene. “Their feelings for each other continued to intensify, although neither of them said I love you openly,” is one example of saving precious words that would have been wasted on a conversation that isn’t about some 10th grade misunderstanding of a sciencey topic.
This was the paragraph that made me realize that a mini review was insufficient to explain how bad this book is: “Craft spent the next morning and afternoon demonstrating his abilities to Martin, who was even more blown away than he expected to be. Once again, no description of these abilities could do justice to the actual demonstrations.”
Well. At least Douglas informs us he’s not even going to make the fucking effort.
It’s so bad. I knew it was going to be bad, but … okay, quantum mechanics does not need a “conscious” observer. Laying aside the fact that we don’t even know what consciousness is, this whole misunderstanding started when we discovered that measuring the behavior of subatomic particles changed their behavior. Is that confusing and weird? Fuck yeah it is. But it doesn’t require a human brain with human eyes to trigger it, it requires a thing that sends signals that interfere with the particle. A star will do. A lump of rock will do. The entire premise of the novel is “Well, quantumy stuff needs brain things, maybe brain things can do whatever they want if they get close to the quantumy stuff!” I would accuse the novel of expressing five-year-old logic, but it’s not logic at all, it’s here’s a thing I heard once and I’m going to run with it because the textbook has too many big words.
That’s the worst of it, but there’s a whole lot of bad to contend with. Every science-esque notion in the book is discussed in a conversation that sounds like an over-caffeinated teenager describing how he’s updating Wikipedia because he just read some stuff and people need to know about it, man.
Then there’s this odd foray into a book about the nature of God. I looked it up, and there really is a book called The God Theory, which Douglas decides to summarize at length a third of the way into his action thriller. Why? Hell if I know, because it never comes up again. If there was a single thread of cohesion between the dozens of random theories tacked on to this story, I might look for some deeper, Umberto-Eco-y reason for this to be in here, but I concluded Douglas was just super pumped about The God Theory and decided to staple it to the plot.
The action, when there actually is any
So you’ve got two characters who are effectively gods, and can manipulate the fundamental structure of reality, and at last they fight. Their fight consists entirely of throwing pure energy at each other to see who freebased the most Nuka Cola that morning. Oh, and shields. And some flying. That’s it. I guess they use vacuum energy. Who cares? Not the author, because there’s not even an attempt to attach the mechanics of this fight scene to all the semi-science that drags on through the conversation parts of the book. One would think a fight involving at least one genius who can turn lead into plutonium might have some interesting tactical elements, instead of just seeing who has the biggest rock. But I guess then no description would do it justice and the fight scene would have to be cut.
Has literally no autonomy whatsoever. Her single role for the first half of the book is to pass information between other characters, either because she works for them, has a crush on them, or is not even trying to resist various torture attempts. She does nothing but react, pass out, and spew information to men who are using her.
What do we know about her? She’s a scientist, THE expert in her field, who needs everything outside her field explained to her in baby talk. Heinlein would be proud, since that’s all any female character in a Heinlein book ever did. She’s Jewish, so the chief villain, who’s a psychopathic Muslim with exactly the amount of depth the phrase “psychopathic Muslim” conveys and not an inch more, can call her a Jewish whore. Because people need so many reasons to hate homicidal psychopaths, to say nothing of an American audience’s relationship with Islam.
At last the good guys win, and we discover that all the men in her life have been actively lying to her, to manipulate her into tricking the bad guy into a weak spot.2 The denouement is a ten-page explanation for why they had to lie to her to get the bad guy, but they hated themselves for it because they loved her so much, and she forgives them.
How do you grow up in the modern world and write this arc for your only female character? That aside, because the entire second half of the book was a series of lies spun by the “good guys,” all of their character arcs are rendered nonsense. They didn’t change. They were lying.
By the last page of this “I’m sorry I hurt you baby I love you so much I just did what I had to do” tag team excuse, I started to wonder if the whole book wasn’t a self-righteous pseudo-apology to an ex the author used to beat.
I read a couple of things comparing Douglas E. Richards to Michael Crichton, which is why I read the book. Not because I liked Crichton: The only Crichton book I ever read was Jurassic Park when I was thirteen, and I thought it had weak characters, but I also felt I never gave him a fair shake.
When I mentioned this to a friend who works at a publishing house, she winced and told me, “If something comes in with a note that it’s like Michael Crichton, that’s a red flag for us.”