Without warning, almost the entire population of Earth blacks out for two minutes. Chaos ensues: helicopters fall from the sky, patients in surgery bleed to death and people who were swimming drown. But the billions who manage to survive experience a vision, six months into the future.
This is the original premise of the latest hit TV series created by the ABC in the U.S., the same company that produced Lost, currently being aired on Channel 7 in Australia. What only a small proportion of the millions of viewers know is that the show is actually based on a novel by acclaimed Canadian science fiction author Robert Sawyer (See Bookmark, Cosmos 27, p87).
Many of the plot elements have survived the transition from novel to dramatisation, including the initial ‘flash forward’. The novel’s characters, however, have visions 21 years into the future, catching snatches of flying cars and scientific breakthroughs, whereas the TV characters experience a vision of 29 April 2010 (cleverly coinciding with the season finale).
As the story unfolds, the characters wonder if they will be able to avoid the fates they glimpsed. Sawyer’s fictional scenario, inspired by a high-school reunion, he says, explores the time-honoured problem of free will: is it real? Or is it merely an illusion, with every action predetermined by the initial set of conditions during the Big Bang? The paradoxes of free will are most keenly expressed in the character of Theo Procopides (novel)/Demetri Noh (John Cho, TV show) who discovers he will be murdered and begins a quest to prevent it.
Though the finale may reveal whether they avoid fate, one mystery set to remain is the cause of the blackouts; the show’s creator David Goyer, who also wrote Blade (1998), Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), has hinted that the cause of the blackouts will remain a mystery for as many seasons as the show itself lasts. This is, perhaps, the biggest difference with Sawyer’s novel. First published in 1999, the novel begins in Geneva in 2009, with scientists counting down to the beginning of the world’s largest scientific experiment: the Large Hadron Collider or LHC.
As the experiment begins, the world loses consciousness. Procopides and Lloyd Simcoe are Nobel Prize-winning project leaders at the LHC. While Procopides tries to find his to-be murderer, Simcoe is left to figure out what happened. In the TV show, this hero plot line falls to an FBI agent – and recovering alcoholic – called Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes).
Given the prime time slot, it seems unlikely that Benford will engage in the novel’s exploration of space-time or the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. But there is a supporting role for a particle physicist called Lloyd Simcoe (Jack Davenport). He brings to the show a little bit of complex science. At the beginning of episode six, “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps”, Simcoe approaches an attractive woman and begins to explain quantum mechanics. Following the mandatory sexual innuendos, Simcoe spends nearly two minutes explaining Schrödinger’s cat and the superposition principle of quantum mechanics. Granted, as he explains the principle, footage flashes up on screen of a team of emergency doctors resuscitating a patient. But during prime time television, that is as much as science buffs can ask for.
Sawyer, who has won all the biggest science fiction prizes including the Hugo award (2003) for Hominids and the Nebula Award (1995) for The Terminal Experiment, has a cameo role as a guy on a mobile phone in the third act of episode one and also wrote episode 17.