Dr. Carolyn “Caro” Soames-Watkins is a promising neurosurgeon whose career is derailed when she reports a superior for sexual harassment. Unsure if there is a future for her in her chosen profession, she accepts an offer from her estranged great-uncle, the Nobel Prize winner Samuel Watkins, to join him at his institute in the Cayman Islands and to work on an exciting scientific breakthrough with himself and his partner, quantum physicist George Weigert.
Caro is at first shocked by what she is being asked to do. The entire project revolves around Weigert’s theory of the “primacy of the observer”, which posits that consciousness is the author of reality, not the other way around as has long been assumed. Watkins and Weigert have created a microchip that, when implanted in the brain, can supposedly allow the recipient to enter an alternate reality of their own creation. They want Caro to implant them into several willing volunteers. Caro is unsure if – despite Weigert’s very detailed explanation of the theory and technology – she believes the implants can do what they claim or if they just offer the recipients a very detailed hallucination. She also has some ethical concerns about the primary purpose of the project: she learns her great-uncle is dying of pancreatic cancer and wants to enter an alternate reality where he is young and healthy again, but where his consciousness retains the lifetime of knowledge he acquired. Caro has few career options at the moment, and when her sister Ellen finds herself strapped with legal and financial problems, Caro agrees to stay with the project in exchange for direct assistance to Ellen.
Nancy Kress has always had a gift for making cutting edge science both believable and digestible to readers, and this novel is no exception. Whether or not you believe the novel’s explanation of the primacy of the observer, authors Lanza and Kress continually find ways draw the reader into the emotional discoveries the characters make as they journey into uncharted scientific territory. This is the novel’s most commendable achievement. But Observer isn’t just a novel about the wonders of quantum physics; it is also a family drama, a romance, and a Crichton-esque technothriller complete with theft and murder and dangerous special interests willing to commit heinous acts to misuse, or destroy, the technology Watkins and Weigert have created. The pacing can get a little uneven at times as it skips uncomfortably from one mode to another, but this is a minor quibble. Observer will leave you better than it found you, and there are few better reasons to read a book than that.