Book Review – Improbable

Adam Fawer’s debut suspense novel, IMPROBABLE, explores the notion of parallel realities, the infinite possibilities bound within each of our choices, and the imponderable and largely unknowable consequences of each human action — even as we are vaguely aware that each choice we makes alters the futures of many others.
Interwoven with a fast-action plot involving a rogue CIA agent trying to escape her past, the greedy, power-hungry director of a governmental science organization, a ruthlessly focused university professor, and a 30-year-old man with temporal lobe epilepsy and a gift for calculating probabilities in his head at lightning speed, is a fascinating smattering of physics and probability theory. A few bits of fact and theory that find their way into the well-paced fiction are brain science history, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Newtonian determinism, the law of entropy, particle-wave duality, Schrodinger’s cat, Laplace’s Demon, Einstein’s theory of relativity, special relativity and quantum mechanics, and Jung’s collective unconscious.
Fawler’s novel expresses convincingly and entertainingly the philosophical and even spiritual idea that since matter and thought are both energy and are therefore interconnected, we can potentially access a timeless, spaceless reality (aka eternity) with our conscious minds; we might identify that access as intuition, a gut feeling, déjà vu, insight … or if we get more than a glimpse, perhaps as hallucinations, delusions, or schizophrenia.

He also engages throughout the book, directly and indirectly, in the game of “what if”: what if the train had been five minutes later? what if her mother had lived? what if he hadn’t opened the door to his old friends? what if he had decided not to cross the street? And so on, dizzingly. The question is raised repeatedly, how much of what happens to us is luck or chance, and how much is the consequence of each person’s conscious or instinctual choices, based on perceived probability of a “good” outcome?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading IMPROBABLE, partly because of the science and the philosophical extrapolation, but just as much for the riveting plot and appealingly complex characters. A number of other reviewers have compared it to The Da Vinci Code; though I liked Da Vinci Code, I never thought about it while reading IMPROBABLE — and, by the way, I think IMPROBABLE is more tightly and compellingly written.

The book that came to my mind was Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, because of the combination of a viable storyline with theory name-dropping and lectures on history and philosophy, although Sophie’s World is much slower paced. The book also reminds me of the recent film “What the Bleep?” — but where “What the Bleep?” purports to present fact and instead comes off as silly and unbelievable, in my opinion, IMPROBABLE purports to be fiction and manages to make a rather credible case for what might well seem outlandish.
One note: This book is not for the squeamish; there are numerous instances of violence and graphic descriptions of its aftermath.
Fawer earned an MBA from Stanford Business School, studied economics at Wharton and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, and is former COO of About.com. Other reviews are available through The Olive Press weblog and MostlyFiction (as a science fiction book??). First chapter excerpt here.

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