Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review of The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka

Most everyone is familiar with Schrodinger’s cat: nobody knows whether it’s alive or dead inside the box until you open it. Taking Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and running with it—straight to Stephen King thriller land, Ted Kosmatka’s The Flicker Men (2015) is an old school thriller built on multiple layers of physics theory—and makes ‘Schroedinger’s frog’ perhaps the better metaphor.

Eric Argus is a talented physicist in the aftermath of a mental breakdown. His prior research collapsing under him, he hits the bottle harder than the textbook these days. In a gesture of kindness from a childhood friend, Argus is given probational employment at a prestigious Boston lab. The chalkboard cleared, he tinkers with a few ideas before, at random, he discovers the lab has an old double-slit machine kicking around, and decides to appropriate it to see Young’s experiment for himself. The machine operates as predicted, that is, until more than just a human is brought in to observe. A dark science underworld emerging in the aftermath, Argus has his perspective of the universe(s) upended. Who are the flicker men?

Kosmatka obviously reveling in science history and theory, The Flicker Men is chalk full of physics. From accepted theory to far more speculative elements, Argus’ story runs a gamut of ideas in his research to the imaginative implications possible in the world. From the aforementioned Heisenberg to David Bohm’s implicate order, nested universe theory to the physical definition of consciousness, there’s a lot for the reader to wrap their head around, ideologically.

The marriage of science and story at times forced, Argus being a physicist makes allowances for the associated theory to occupy such a portion of the narrative with purpose. There are other times, however, the narrative feels overburdened, even over-complicated by the theory-mashing. Kosmatka’s lexical command makes the concepts accessible, even engaging, only at times the mixing casts a pall of uncertainty (get it?) over the story, which, if it is to be a truly engaging thriller, needs to run along sharper edges, particularly the climax.

In the end, The Flicker Men is a fair hard sf thriller that starts fresh and clean but may overburden itself with theory (speculative and real) to stumble into its conclusion. Satisfying on a line by line basis, Kosmatka’s talents as a wordsmith have certainly improved even if he’s still searching for the best way to synergize the ideas he brings into play. The hard sf crowd is sure to gobble this up, while other readers may be looking for something different.

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