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  • Writer's pictureChristopher G. Moore

The Quantum State in Contemporary Crime Fiction

“The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that certain pairs of physical properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known. It is impossible to measure simultaneously both position and velocity of a microscopic particle with any degree of accuracy or certainty.”

On the quantum level Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty explains the weirdness of the state of a particle. The act of observation will fix the state. What does this have to do with writing or reading fiction? China Miéville makes a case drawing upon Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty. And in my view, there are some problems with making such analogy.

In terms of fiction, the reader’s brain may indeed process information at the quantum level. But assuming that is the case, the reader’s feeling of satisfaction or disappointment in the book does not rest on an application of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It is more useful to think of readers and writers as linked by the common desire to attribute patterns to a series of events, circumstances or happenings. As much of life is a random drift of unconnected events and happenings, our minds are constantly trying to make sense of these perceptions by reading patterns into it. Often the patterns are read onto random events, so that our minds can substitute meaning for randomness. That isn’t just a little game that we all play; it is the major league game that we as a species are forced into playing. Pattern recognition was an essential survival technique. It defines how we exist in the world.

We seem unable to not make patterns from randomness. It is how our brains function on a neural level. China Miéville singles out crime fiction as a narrative that inevitably is incomplete and disappointing once the end comes into site. The letdown isn’t confined to crime fiction but fiction in all categories where ultimately the author must show his or her hand by pulling those patterns of conduct and circumstances together and attributing agency to the underlying patterns.

Fiction provides two thinking tools we bring to our daily making sense of randomness project. Novels are a pattern creating and recognition enterprise. The skill and craft demands words and images that allow the reader to construct and walk through a trail of vivid, original patterns. Like any mountain climb, some trails are easier to climb than others, some more beautiful, inspiring, and challenging. In crime fiction, the patterns are found in the behavior of the characters whose lives meet at a juncture where criminal activity has occurred or is about to occur. The reader opening a book is looking for a particular kind of mountain climb. If what is promised is different from what is delivered, and then disappointment is bound to follow. Do you wish to climb Everest or Pike’s Peak?

The second thing that fiction must do is to attribute agency to the patterns of behavior that is plausible but not necessarily obvious. Let’s take a conventional or traditional mystery. The pattern of conduct surrounding the murder suggests that the killer is the husband because of a previously stormy argument, which a neighbor overheard the night of the murder. We attribute the anger of the husband as the reason for the murder. The narrative can build a good case showing a recurring pattern of conduct that leads the reader to believe the husband is guilty. This is where probability theory comes into play. It seems probable from what we’ve read to draw the conclusion that the husband committed the murder. The author also shows the neighbor as a good husband and father and employer and we rely on his impressions to reinforce our view that the pattern of the husband’s behavior points to him being the murdered. Stable, normal, good neighbors aren’t normally thought of as killers. Then the reader comes to the ending, which exonerates the husband and shows that it was the neighbor who killed the wife, he’d had an affair with her and she was blackmailing him and he used the domestic fight as cover for the murder.

There is no quantum state involved in this tale. What is involved is the pattern making of the author, which leads readers to recognize the pattern and attribute internationality or agency behind the pattern. We often make mistakes in this mental process. It’s called the false positive, false negative problem. We believe the husband is the killer based on the patterns we’ve seen in the story. But all the circumstances pointing to the husband’s guilt turn out to be a false positive. He didn’t do it. We don’t suspect the neighbor because we misread the patterns that point in that direction. That gives us a false negative. It is the false negative that leaves us with a slightly bitter, foolish feeling. We pride ourselves in our ability to read patterns without drawing irrational or wrong conclusions. Our brain tricks us into jumping the internationality gun. It is likely in our genes. Superstition, astrology, religion, the paranormal provide a failsafe platform if no apparent internationality can be attributed. In other words, our mind is structured to look for causality in all patterns and we don’t rest until the agent is identified.

It was better to hear the rustle in the elephant grass in an open field and run for our lives thinking it is a lion. But it was only a breeze rushing through the grass. That is a false positive. We feel slightly stupid in that case. But the person who hears the rustle and assumes that pattern of noise fits the wind blowing may be in for a rude shock when a hungry lion appears. That is the false negative. We roam the planet today because our ancestors were more prone to make the false positive rather than the false negative decision.

China Miéville says, “Crime novels never end well.” That may be true. But the larger point in fiction is that all endings come down to some hard choices about causation and internationality. Either it is the wind or a lion causing the deep grass to rustle. But no matter which one it is, some readers are going to be highly disappointed. In our minds, we want our attribution to the cause to be vindicated. But it is the author who makes the final call, and if she or he chooses an agency different from our expectations, we say the book didn’t end well. And it may be that no novel ever ends well for all readers because there is often no consensus on agency. We don’t want to finish a book and learn that the events had no meaning, but were a random dance in the universe. Your god may not work as a credible explanation for the agency behind events (e.g., the creation of the universe or our species). Your characters may fail for the same reason.

Tip of the hat to Sarah Weinman for blogging about China Miéville’s essay:

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