Eric James Stone
Baen, January 2016
Trade paperback, 250pp., #15.00
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
Eric James Stone is perhaps best known in the science-fiction community for his Nebula-winning, Hugo-nominated story, “That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made” (2010), one of fifty published short stories. “Leviathan” demonstrated Stone’s ability to tell a compelling story incorporating an SF theme—alien/human interaction—with equally compelling perspectives on ethics, morality, spirituality, and religion.
His novel, Unforgettable, at first feels more focused on the physical, however, in particular on connections between individuals and the fascinating worlds posited by quantum physics. Nat Morgan is a quantum “freak,” what one character refers to as “Schrödinger’s cat burglar,” who “exists” only as long as people physically see him; precisely one minute after he leaves, they immediately forget him. His mother has forgotten him. Cell phones forget him. ATM computers—indeed all computers—forget him. Worse, his handler at the CIA forgets him, so every time Morgan contacts the agency for an assignment, he must reestablish not only his identity but his existence.
The inconveniences are worth it, though, since for some years he has been effectively stealing secrets for the CIA. His victims do not remember his crimes; if he is caught in the act, he can run, hide, and a minute later walk away unnoticed and unsuspected. The set-up works nicely until his latest mission brings him into intimate contact with a beautiful former-Soviet agent, now working for the Moscow mafia. At a critical moment, something untoward happens, and he realizes that she can remember him.
What follows is a cutting-edge, technological thriller that makes liberal use of superpositions; collapsing probability waves; sub-atomic entanglement; and the Quantum Zeno effect, or Turing paradox, which argues that a particle cannot/will not decay while being observed—while neatly defining these and other concepts as part of the narrative.
At the core of the plot is a nearly completed quantum supercomputer engineered by an Iranian physicist who may or may not be trying to defect. Morgan and his counterpart join forces to prevent the supercomputer from becoming operational, risking their lives in a dangerous undertaking which, if successful, no one will remember.
Stone handles his material well, successfully integrating characters, their backgrounds, and their increasingly complex relationships; multiple exotic locales; and minutiae of quantum physics. In the end, he transcends clockwork-SF storytelling as his explorations of intriguing scientific possibilities and human realities lead him to a puzzle as fundamental to human existence as the quantum universe is to the (borrowing from Stephen King) macroverse: the essential nature of freedom while creating a good deal of quirky enjoyment along the way.