[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Novel Outline


by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Spoiler Warning! This document discloses many of the details of the plot of the novel it discusses. It's strongly recommended that you not look at this document until after finishing the novel in question.

David G. Hartwell at Tor Books commissioned Robert J. Sawyer to write the novel utlimately published as FlashForward based on this 2,600-word outline. Rob submitted only this outline, and no sample chapters.


(Ultimately published as FlashForward)

The very near future: Friday, April 17, 2009. MARK DECTER, 47, is an American physicist working at CERN (Conseil européenne pour la recherche nucléaire), the European particle-physics center near Geneva. CERN is supported by nineteen member countries, but certain nonmember countries — including the United States and Japan — have made major financial contributions to the Large Hadron Collider, scheduled to be completed early in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Priced at two billion dollars, the LHC will be the most powerful particle accelerator ever built, capable of smashing protons together with a combined energy of fourteen trillion electron volts.

With the aid of the LHC, Mark Decter, his young research partner GEORGIOS ("GEORGE") PAPADATOS, and their colleagues hope to detect the Higgs boson, the Holy Grail of particle physics. The Higgs particle is predicted by the electroweak theory; it's an important intermediate step in the long sought-after grand unified-field theory that would demonstrate that the four apparently separate forces of nature (gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces) are really just different manifestations of a single force.

Under Mark and George's supervision, a collision is prepared. Protons will slam together with greater energy than ever before in the history of the planet. They're both excited and anxious: if things go as they predict, they may share a Nobel prize. There's a countdown until the collision, scheduled to begin precisely at 10:00 a.m. local time: Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero. And then —

Suddenly all of Mark Decter's surroundings change. He's no longer at CERN; he's no longer even in Switzerland. Instead, he's in a bedroom somewhere — New England, perhaps, judging by the view through the dormer window. It's autumn (not the spring he'd been in a moment before); the leaves have turned color. And it's daytime. If it's 10:00 a.m. in Geneva, it should be pitch black in the States — but everything is brightly lit. Mark is in bed, naked. He's not alone, though: he's with a woman. And, suddenly, to his shock, he realizes it's an old woman. His mind recoils from what he thinks of as a hag, but he seems to have no control over his body. He leans in to the withered woman and strokes her shriveled breast, but then he stops and rises from the bed, needing to visit the bathroom. And as he makes his way there, he glimpses himself in the mirror above the bureau: the top of his head is bald, the fringe around his ears is gray, and his face is deeply lined. It's as if he's aged twenty years and —

And then, suddenly, Mark Decter is back at CERN. The particle-collision experiment is over. Mark is disoriented and stunned — so much so that the disappointment of the experiment having failed to detect the Higgs boson doesn't register at first.

What has happened? It's only a matter of minutes before Mark determines that it wasn't just he who had a displacement experience — almost everyone at CERN did.

Almost everyone, but not all. Mark's partner, George Papadatos, experienced nothing — not even passing time; he simply blacked out.

It soon becomes apparent that the phenomenon isn't restricted to those at CERN. Mark's grad student, JACOB HOROWITZ, had a vision of himself in the future with an older version of CARLY SIMPKINS. Carly isn't in Geneva; rather, she works at TRIUMF, Canada's national meson facility. A phone call from Mark wakes Carly — it is, after all, only shortly after 2:00 a.m. in Vancouver.

At first, Carly claims that nothing unusual has happened. But after a moment, she recalls an incredibly vivid dream of herself as an older woman in the company of someone she hardly knows — Jacob Horowitz.

Jacob and Carly haven't spoken to each other since their visions occurred. Mark and George arrange for Jacob to be questioned by an expert witness-examiner from the Geneva police — and they arrange for Carly to be examined by a similar expert in Vancouver. The two accounts — including sketches made by Jacob and Carly of the room they were in and transcripts of their conversations, match in almost every particular. There's little room for doubt: it wasn't just a hallucination, but an actual shared experience.

Meanwhile, CNN is reporting that the phenomenon occurred worldwide. Some people had visions that included specific time references — newspapers, calendars, watches, and so on. All the dates match: it seems that for approximately five minutes, the consciousness of everyone on Earth jumped ahead twenty years, six months, five days, and nine hours, to 7:21 p.m. Geneva time (2:21 p.m. Eastern Time) on Tuesday, October 22, 2029. Since the experience began at the precise moment of the proton-proton collision at CERN, George and Mark assume their experiment was somehow responsible.

And that could mean that they are in deep trouble: news reports make it clear that the carnage has been incredible. Since everyone in 2009 lost consciousness for five minutes, tens of thousands are dead: countless automobiles and airplanes have crashed, medical operations have failed, and so on.

It becomes clear that the world's population now falls into three categories: about fifty percent had a concrete vision, indistinguishable from normal waking existence; thirty percent had a vision either of complete sensory deprivation or with a dreamlike quality; and twenty percent were like George Papadatos: they had no vision at all. For them, the five minutes simply passed as a blackout.

Although interpretations vary, the most popular one is that those who had realistic visions will be awake at 2:21 p.m. Eastern time on October 22, 2029; those who experienced darkness or dreams will be asleep then; and those who experienced nothing at all — will be dead. (The fact that those whose visions were of sleep are predominantly in the eastern hemisphere, where it will be night at that time, and those who had no visions at all were predominantly fifty years or older in 2009, adds credence to this interpretation.)

But George Papadatos is only 29; in twenty years he should be just 49. He's shocked at the idea that he might be dead at so young an age.

George's shock grows even more profound when he receives a phone call from a woman he's never met. She's called to recount what she experienced during her five minutes of dislocation. Her future self was reading a newspaper — and the article she'd started reading just as the displacement ended was about George's murder. It seems that one day before the period everyone else was having visions of, George Papadatos will be shot dead, by person or persons unknown.

Can a coherent picture of the future twenty years hence be assembled? Apparently yes: it's a vast mosaic, with billions of pieces, illuminating the politics, culture, technology, and morality of the fascinatingly different world two decades further along.

All sorts of organizations and individuals race to collect and capitalize on people's visions — but there's no way for any one group to gather them all. For the bulk of the novel, we follow the searchings by George Papadatos, who becomes obsessed with investigating his own murder before it actually happens. Someone somewhere, after all, may have witnessed the event; this is the frame that provides the springboard to the rest of the novel.

George uses a combination of newspaper and Internet ads and his own detective work to track down parties who might have leads — people from his own life, people mentioned in the newspaper article about his murder, and so on. George's investigations serve as our entrée to the visions and lives of many disparate people, from many walks of life, showing us the powerful range of human reactions to foreknowledge of one's personal future. The real meat of the book, only hinted at here, is the series of interconnected, intimate, personal stories about the lives of the people George investigates in his search for his own killer; these stories only obliquely provide clues about the murder — their real narrative purpose is to illuminate the various impacts the visions have on different people.

Typical of the sort of dilemmas we'll explore is Mark Decter's own story. He's supposed to get married in a few weeks — but the woman he's engaged to isn't the old woman he saw in his vision; although age can change appearances, his fiancée, MICHIKO KOMURA, is Japanese (indeed, she is one of the Japanese physicists working at CERN), and the woman in the vision was white.

Michiko had a vision, too. Mark has to wrestle with the implications of this: the one thing that might have excused his being with another woman was that, tragically, Michiko had passed on in the intervening years. But clearly she has not; their marriage is doomed before it's even begun. Can he now go through with the wedding, knowing that long before death they will part?

Other people George encounters will have equally compelling problems. A man about to become a father for the first time will realize that two decades hence his son will hate him. A woman who is sacrificing everything in hopes of becoming a famous actor will learn that her dream will not come true. An engineering student will be stunned to discover that by 2029 he's become the cordon bleu chef at a fancy restaurant. The stories will illuminate the human condition without devolving into moralizing, or Twilight Zone / O. Henry endings, and the ones we follow will interlock, forming their own mosaic.

George will eventually track down the police officer who discovers his body twenty years hence — but the future officer today is a boy just six years old — and he's been traumatized by the horrific vision of the bullet-riddled corpse.

Naturally, everyone wants to know if the visions are — to quote Scrooge — things that will be, or only things that might be. Although Mark Decter can't explain why the dislocations occurred, he's adamant that they represent an immutable future: Mark goes on CNN to explain to the world the work of Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909), the German mathematician who originally put forth the idea of a space-time continuum, the framework upon which Einstein developed relativity.

Minkowski proposed — and all experimental results to date indicate that we live in — a "block universe." If we think of ourselves as existing in a two-dimensional universe, then the space-time continuum is a three-dimensional block or cube. Seen from the side, each of us is represented by a track through that cube, beginning at the moment we're born and ending at the moment we die. Such a block universe can be thought of as a stack of individual frames of motion-picture film, and "now" is the particular frame currently collectively under consideration. But the future and the past are already recorded on other frames, and are as real and immutable as the one we call "now." Indeed, the effect of the proton-proton collision was apparently to simply jump the collective "now" temporarily ahead twenty years, resulting in the visions.

For most of humanity, this isn't what they want to hear (although it does allow Mark to divorce himself from blame for the carnage that occurred during the experiment at CERN — those deaths were inevitable in the Minkowski worldview). For few people does the actuality of their future live up to their dreams. Many — including, of course, George Papadatos, who wishes to prevent his own murder — refuse to accept Mark's view, and are actively searching for ways to prove that the future portrayed in the visions is false or changeable.

Indeed, Mark's fiance, Michiko, is enamored with the ideas of physicist Frank J. Tipler [a real person]. Tipler contends that near the omega point — the very end of the universe — the artificial intelligences that succeed us will have not only the power and resources, but also the desire, to recreate every possible permutation of human DNA and every possible permutation of human memories — in effect resurrecting from the dead all possible versions of all possible people. The visions, just possibly, aren't from twenty years hence, but from twenty billion years hence, and they're not of the one fixed future, but rather of an arbitrarily selected possible future.

Besides wanting to change the future, most people also want to know more about it. After a debate at the United Nations, it's decided to attempt to reproduce the phenomenon by having Mark Decter and George Papadatos re-run their experiment at CERN. Everyone worldwide is warned not to be involved in any dangerous activity — driving, landing a plane, performing or undergoing surgery, at 10:00 p.m. Geneva time. (The time is offset twelve hours from the last attempt so that those who experienced visions simply of being asleep will perhaps have a chance at substantive visions this time out — although, of course, there's no guarantee that the start time of the proton-proton collision is in any way related to the apparent time in the visions.)

The attempt to reproduce the vision experience fails, but, to Mark and George's delight, the Higgs boson is detected this time.

It's soon determined that it wasn't just the original collision at CERN that caused the visions, but rather that the cause was the collision in conjunction with an influx of radiation from the sun, related to the current sunspot maximum (sunspots wax and wane over an eleven-year cycle). The radiation from the sun arrived without warning and at the speed of light (meaning no advance indication of a future burst is possible), and it takes days to set up the collider — so it seems that there's no way to reproduce the visions.

Our character-driven stories take a new twist when Mark is proven wrong — the future is not carved in stone. Michiko proves that a discontinuity in reality has occurred: for five minutes, every human being on planet Earth was experiencing the future, not the present. During those five minutes, no one at all was actually observing what was going on in 2009. But quantum mechanics demands observers: it is the act of observation that causes wave fronts, representing all the possibilities that might be, to collapse into one concrete reality. The initial experiment with the Large Hadron Collider should have produced the Higgs boson both times, not just the second time — and the fact that it didn't simply underscores that no observers were available during the first attempt, preventing the wave fronts from collapsing. This discontinuity has broken humanity free of the restricting block universe. People will be able to use the insights they gained about what might happen to better their lives.

Michiko and Mark marry in a ceremony in Switzerland; they're going to face the future, whatever it might bring, together, with their eyes wide open . . .

In an epilogue, twenty years later — in 2029 — we learn the ironic resolution of George Papadatos's story: he was killed by PAUL HABIB, one of the people he'd interviewed while researching his own murder. Habib hadn't known George at all in 2009, but George had tracked him down and induced him to reveal his vision — a vision that was meaningless to Habib at the time he shared it, but as the day it portrayed draws closer, Habib realizes that anyone knowing its contents could ruin him. In a looping effect, underscoring that humanity has indeed broken free of the block universe with its linear life paths, we see that if George hadn't investigated his own murder, he never would have been killed . . .

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