Adam Fawer


(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 16, 2005)

“What’s it like? Schozophrenia I mean,” Caine said awkwardly realizing he had never asked his brother the question before. “What’s it feel like?”

Jasper shrugged his shoulders. “It doesn’t feel like anything. The delusions seem real. Natural, even obvious. Like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world that the government is spying on your thoughts or that your best friend is trying to kill you.” He didn’t say anything for awhile. “That’s why is so f** scary.”

Improbable by Adam Fawer

This novel starts with the wildest game of Texas Hold’em and a most improbable event. Sitting in the basement of a Russian Mafia king pin, David Caine has been dealt a hand which includes two Aces – and there’s one ace on the table. All he needs is one more ace and he has the second highest winning poker hand. But he also has all the signs that he is about to have a world-class seizure. He just needs to hang in there long enough to win the pot. And luck is with him as he gets his ace. But wait, his opponent seems awfully sure of himself too. Is he bluffing? The only hand that can beat four aces is a royal straight flush. Caine, whom his former professor has nicknamed “Rainman,” can run the probability numbers on the whole card game in his head; he has an unusual knack though most poker players have some talent in this area. The stakes go higher and higher as Caine convinces himself that his opponent is only bluffing and he ups the ante. The odds are too improbable that his opponent has the higher hand.

Then just before he goes into full seizure, he realizes that he’s into the Russian Mafia for $7,000. His hand was not the sure bet that it should have been. The $400 in his savings account is hardly going to cover this debt. He's in real trouble. Caine wakes in the hospital with his twin brother, Joshua, patiently waiting for him. It turns out that he hasn’t seen Joshua in some time – Joshua has been away at a mental institute trying to get his schizophrenia under control. Well now, Joshua is home again and seemingly all right, if you discount that he tends to rhyme the last word of sentences, an odd tick apparently expressed by schizophrenics.

Meanwhile, Dr. Tversky is conducting some experiments on his student intern, Julia. She’s only too willing to help him; she is naively in love. It seems that the government also has an interest in Dr. Tversky’s work. Forsythe, the head of the government’s Science and Technology Research Center, has managed to secure Nava, a CIA Agent, to keep an eye on Dr. Tversky’s experiments. But Nava has her own problems. She sells top secret information to other governments but on her last deal, she inadvertently gives a bad disk to the Korean mafia and is unable to give back the cash from her offshore account. No problem, she’ll just steal the secret information again, or so she thinks. Not so easy, when she is suddenly transferred to work under Forsyth and all her security is revoked. So she needs another big secret, quickly. Turns out her new assignment is worth quite a bit more. Whatever these experiments are, the Koreans want the Alpha subject. So Nava plans on kidnapping the student intern and getting out of the country as soon as she hands her over to the Korean RDEI. But, this plan, too, goes afoul when the Alpha subject suddenly dies – but not before revealing future events to first Dr. Tversky and then to Nava – which lead both to pursuing David Caine.

It seems that Caine, unwittingly, is the Beta subject. And now Nava must steal him for the Koreans – and for Forsyth. Though the solution of how Nava gets around this problem might be obvious, everything else about this novel is a surprise. Add in the fact that Caine is now on a new seizure medication that has a slight chance of causing schizophrenia as a side effect. Given his twin brother’s condition and few other things that happen to him -- like predicting future events -- Caine is not at all convinced that everything that is happening is really, real. But he follows Jasper’s advice on how to deal with schizophrenia – “try to make smart decisions within whatever world you create. Eventually you will find your way back to reality.”

Despite all the action (of which there is plenty and all of it tight without a single loose end), there is a serious scientific hypothesis underneath the layers of the various subplots. This novel is about chance, fate and determinism; specifically centered on Marquis Pierre Simon de Lapace’s belief that cause-and-effect rules govern all and if one had sufficient intellect they would be able to know the future just as one knows the past. This intellect has become known as Laplace’s Demon. Moreover, the novel explores how “free will” plays in a deterministic theory (nicely done, I might add), which I believe is basically Chaos theory and tosses in a bit of quantum mechanics. By the end of the novel, Fawer has created a plausible setting for Laplace’s theory, which includes a case for schizophrenia being a symptom rather than a disorder and explaining the phenomenon of Déjà vu. And of course, as the title implies, there is a lot of talk about probability theory. In fact, there a number of mathematic formulas and examples that are very interesting, if not outright fun, which is surprising for those of us who have a deep rooted fear of this subject matter.

This is not "hard" science fiction like Gregory Benford writes. This is more on par with The DaVinci Code or any other thrillers that are destined for the big screen. Personally, I like Harper Collins description, "A Beautiful Mind meets Kill Bill." All the math and physics are given to us with concrete everyday examples and even though I can’t exactly recite any of the information I learned, at least while I was reading I felt quite a bit smarter than normal. I would hope that even a hardcore sci-fi fan would find this book rewarding, though, that is hard for me to judge.

Also of interest, is the back story behind this novel. Adam Fawer is the person who challenged Stephanie Williams to write a novel before she died of breast cancer, thus we have Stephanie to thank for finally helping Fawer to realize his first novel (of which I truly hope there are more to come) and to Fawer for inspiring Williams to write her one and only novel. Both are talented authors and we the reader or lucky for their friendship. If you had asked me, the fact that they both had good novels within them, I would have said that's improbable. But that would have been a gut level answer without the math.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 59 reviews

Read an excerpt from Improbable at the author's website

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About the Author:

Adam FawerAdam Fawer holds undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and received an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. During his corporate career, Fawer worked for a variety of companies including Sony Music, J.P. Morgan, and most recently,, where he was the chief operating officer. Improbable, his first novel, has already been translated into five languages. Fawer lives in New York with his partner, Meredith, and far too many pet fish. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014