on July 16, 2001
I'll admit my bias up front: I'm a solid Robert J. Sawyer fan. I got hooked with "Factoring Humanity," sailed right through "Flashforward," "Starplex," and "Calculating God," then stumbled a bit with "Illegal Alien." Then I read "The Terminal Experiment."
I do like this book. It had some good strong characters, and had the usual Sawyer multiplot setup. When a man develops a machine capable of viewing the soul's release after death, the world changes overnight. The philosophical ramifications of this device have its creator wondering about what happens to the soul once it has left the body, and he produces an AI experiment: he creates three copies of his own mind to exist in cyberspace: one with no memory of physical existance (to simulate life after death), one with no knowledge of aging or mortality (to simulate immortality), and one unmodified, as a sort of scientific "control."
Then, people with whom Hobson has 'personality conflicts' start showing up dead, and it seems that all three Hobson-AIs have escaped their cybernetic boxes. One of them is a killer.
Weaving multiple plots together is usually a forte of Sawyer, but in "The Terminal Experiment," it's not so tightly woven. The plots of the family troubles of Hobson, against the "soul-wave" device, and the murder mystery, don't always link together as tightly as they could. Still, I quite enjoyed his book, as always, and if nothing else, the philosophical debates of the three AIs, and what they represent, was a real thought-provoker.
If you're new to Sawyer, start with something else, such as "Flashforward" or "Factoring Humanity" or "Calculating God." If you've read him before, be prepared for a stylistically weaker plot, but a good read nonetheless.
on July 16, 2000
I've spent most of my life reading science fiction; I've read almost everything written before 1980, and a huge chunk of what's come since then. What I've loved most about the genre -- after the guilty pleasures of space opera -- is its capacity to take the unanswerable questions and try to answer them. Too often, the questions we want to know the answers to -- what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What happens to us after we die? -- are either unanswerable or fully realized in religion. So, for a science fiction writer to contemplate the nature of the soul and the afterlife, he runs two risks: one, that he will come up with ridiculous, unproveable answers, or two, that he will utterly infuriate one or more of the established religions. To Robert Sawyer's immense credit, he does neither. He constructs a fascinating premise: what if the soul could be proved to exist, and be proved to be heading somewhere after death? He then constructs another premise: he takes the protagonist's personality, and he makes three AI copies: one with no modifications, one that has all the bodily references deleted, and one with all the knowledge of aging and death deleted. That is his main story. The murder mystery that runs along side this plot is interesting, but it isn't the main point. Sawyer is asking the most important questions a human being can ask, and he's coming up with plausible answers. One of the paradoxes of science fiction is that its greatest books are religious in nature: "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "Dune" are two excellent examples. And while "The Terminal Experiment" isn't quite up to that level (what is?), it is a worthy younger brother to those older giants. The clear, lucid prose reminds me of Isaac Asimov's belief that nothing should get in the way of the story; the characters are not eccentrics, but everyday people, which serves Sawyer's purpose much better than coming up with oddballs that we might remember better. I enjoyed this book far more than any other sf novel in years, precisely because it brought me back to why I stayed in love with the genre after I grew up: it's the only literary form that still provides intellectual provocation.
on November 25, 2007
Robert J Sawyer has never been an author to think small and he certainly didn't start in "The Terminal Experiment"! Soul-searching (literally) provocative discussions on the nature and the very definition of death, immortality, spirituality, morality, love, compassion, hatred, infidelity and more are what elevates Sawyer's novel from the realm of a mere hard sci-fi murder mystery into the class of a Nebula Award winner! He even goes so far as to touch upon the existence of a soul and its effect upon religious beliefs and global events.
Dr Peter Hobson, a successful businessman and bio-technology engineer, has created an EEG orders of magnitude more sensitive than all of the machines currently available. When he uses his scanner to detect an electrical field leaving the body after death, which he calls the "soul wave", he then collaborates with his best friend, an AI specialist, to create three computer simulations of his own brain - one modified to represent the spirit, or life after death; a second, modified to have no concept of death or aging, representing immortality; and the third left untouched as a scientific control. The self-determining simulations escape from the confines of the AI lab's computers into the world wide net and the murders begin. One of them is a murderer but the question, of course, is which one, why and how to stop it?
Sawyer's clever literary device of using snippets from newscasts and magazine or newspaper articles is not only entertaining but it places the issues he has chosen to address in his novel into a global context and hypothesizes on the effects that these types of discoveries would have on a worldwide scale ... at once thought provoking, amusing, sobering and educational!
On a complete aside, I was also grateful to Sawyer for using his story as an example of what Charles Dickens was trying to convey in his famous opening paragraph in "The Tale of Two Cities" - you know the one, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times ...". Until Sawyer illustrated the idea using his own story, I was always foggy about this ambiguous juxtaposition of complete opposites. But Sawyer switched on the light bulb for me.
on August 2, 1997
Robert Sawyer has moved to the forefront of Canadian SF writers, largely on the basis of this book and StarPlex, both multi-nominated tales. Neither is up to the quality of the outstanding Far Seer trilogy, but that's hardly damning. What Terminal Experiment offers is a series of ideas wrapped up in Sawyer's second attempt at the SF mystery. The first was Golden Fleece and the 'mystery' quality of this book doesn't quite live up to that early effort, in a discipline that Isaac Asimov called the most difficult in the field. But all that's back story to this book.
Terminal Experiment features Peter Hobson, a scientist with a creationist bent, who invents a measuring device for souls. This puts him at the fork of a series of Hobson's choices that eventually lead to an AI-induced nightmare. His solution is pedestrian. The joy of the book is in the conundrums of existence that are raised. Describe your last meal at a restaurant with a friend or loved one. Did you describe the scene from the vantage point of your seat or did you assume the role of a third-party on-looker? It's a little tidbit, but the kind of item that prompts discussion after the fact. And what better legacy can a book have?
Read Terminal Experiment not for the mystery or even the near-future SF. Read it for the chance to talk about things you never imagined could be part of your life.
on October 13, 1997
The vitriol displayed in some of the reviews of this book amazes me. While the writing style may not give Updike or Bellow anything to worry about, when compared to some of the so-called giants in this genre, like Asimov, Clarke, and Niven, it holds up quite well.
Yes, there are some lapses such as: about 5 too many Star Trek references; a tendency to take today's media figures and just age them, instead of creating new people; and a lead character that seems a little too much like someone you'd bump into at a sci-fi convention. But some of the criticisms on this page are pretty unfounded. Someone criticised the lack of differences in technology between today and 2011 Just how much do you expect life to change in 14 years? Is your life today hugely different than it was in 1983? I think its great that in this version of the future people aren't riding anti-grav cars on the way to the space elevator. And perhaps the most insulting critique of all is that the book doesn't pay enough attention to the U.S., Europe, Japan. Why, this book even has the audacity to present the idea that a major discovery could be made in Canada! Amazing! How insultingly U.S.-centric is it to demand that Canadian writers set their stories in the U.S.?
This book isn't great literature, but it is very good sci-fi. It is full of fascinating ideas, a propulsive narrative with its share of surprises, and an interesting focus on morality. Don't miss this book because of the cranky comments listed on this page. This one deserved the Nebula it won.
on June 27, 1998
When Science Fiction is at its best, the technology is so accurate that only small extensions make it "fiction" instead of "fact". That is definitely the case with the Artificial Intelligence technology utilized in this book. We may not be at the point of actually creating fully thinking simulations, but so MUCH of the technology is right, it is no suspension of belief by the reader to believe that this has been achieved in what is effectively a current day setting. It is truly evident that Sawyer consulted with the experts in the field.
When SF is doing its best, it uses the fictional world to deal with important issues. That is also handled adeptly in this book. The Terminal Experiment not only deftly discusses social issues such as abortion and infidelity, but also the "biggies" such as life, death, and the meaning of it all. Even the sidebars indicating media and commerce's reactions to the main character's discovery, which could have really been hokey if not done well, are fun rather than a distraction.
A+ for good SF; A+ for SF "doing good"; Sawyer immediately became one of my favorite authors on the reading of this book alone.
on March 25, 2014
Robert Sawyer deals with some important and controversial themes, so I suppose I should not have been surprised that he wrote this one about Dr. Peter Hobson, a neurosurgeon who came up with instrumentation to determine the moment of death. He was motivated by the experience of having an organ donor seem to come back to life during the surgery to remove his donated organs. He discovers a phenomenon at the moment of death which immediately gets dubbed "the soul wave," and of course becomes a primary focus for all sorts of religious and spiritual attention.
Oddly enough, that's not really what the book is about, except for openers. He goes a lot further in trying to comprehend this "soul" phenomenon, and what death really is -- and is not -- in ways that may or may not qualify as scientific. They are based on technology, sure enough, but he and his partner seem to do a lot of interpretation which goes well beyond the facts. But then, so does the mass media in reporting all that he is getting into.
Still, they have an even more daring experiment which is not reported to the media, or to anyone else, and for which Peter is himself the guinea pig. Since I really hate spoilers, let's just say that I don't agree that his experimental design would measure what he thought it would, and the end of the story at least partially vindicates my skepticism. In the meantime, several murders and disappearances, and one or two rather impressive liars, are encountered.
This is a good read, but not quite up to the standards of Sawyer's best work.
on June 11, 2011
I could not set this book down; I read it in one long, hot afternoon last week. And I will simply say the last few pages made me sigh with fulfillment and relief that the author could actually come up with a way to complete this fascinating story.
I have read reviews of Robert J. Sawyer's books criticizing his "Star Trek" and other pop-culture references, and to that I suggest these critics note the references to Shakespeare, Greek mythology, not to mention untranslated Latin quotations routinely found in earlier popular authors; Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels for instance; and realize that all authors cite what are familiar and normal parts of their world.
Sawyer has made a bold, and generally successful, attempt to raise the genre of speculative fiction above the 'space opera' level. Merging a wealth of science and technical publications with a philosophical drama, he's launched a fresh approach to sf prose. The story relates the life of Peter Hobson, who becomes a specialist in brain signal detection after witnessing a corpse reacting to an organ transplant operation. His research discloses that the brain indeed possesses something that seems to transcend death. Pursuing that issue, he records his own brain signals, creating three identities. Meanwhile, Hobson's a lovely, devoted, wife betrays him with a creep, devastating him. The result is mysterious deaths, a world reaction to his discovery and some heavy discussion on human values.
The debate over human consciousness, whether it exists, whether it's unique in the animal kingdom and whether it has a long term essence, remains ongoing and intense. Works on evolution and sociobiology are permeated with the question of whether our ability to communicate ideas reflects the existence of a spiritual element in humanity. Ever since early humans could perceive the idea of death the question of 'what happens after' has dominated our thinking. Sawyer makes a good effort to deal with the first part of the question: yes, there's something there, and it's not limited to humans. As to the afterlife, Sawyer raises the question, then leaves it for a later book or someone else to decide.
The many comments below about Sawyer's characters reflect the maturity of his prose style. Readers looking for simplistic people and predictable action are not pandered to in this book. He introduces a devout Muslim AI engineer, surely a novel idea in speculative fiction, and a graduate chemist unable to shed her childhood disappointments. Current concepts of family stress, with separations, sex, and parental tensions all become major features in this story. While the characters here are mildly wooden [especially in comparison with Sawyer's later books], their models are real enough. Sawyer simply had too much philosophy and technology to present in too few pages. The lady copper, in particular, is a pretty fast thinker, given the novelty of the circumstances.
The philosophy redeems any faults in this book. We need to recognize where evolution has brought us. Sawyer touches that issue lightly, bringing the story to a level rarely encountered. We are left uncertain as to whether the concept of the soul is meaningful. That will leave some readers unsatisfied, but that's a major part of Sawyer's appeal. He will raise the questions, you must come up with some of the answer.
on October 23, 2012
Dr. Peter Hobson, a scientist, discovers that there is a violet electrical "something" in the brain that escapes at the moment of death - he interpret this electrical something to be the soul. Of course, this discovery opens all kinds of discussion from the most scientific to the most extreme religious groups.
Then Dr. Hobson wonders what it is like to "be" a soul - a soul minus a body. So, Peter and Dr. Sarkar, a Muslim schoolmate and friend, decide to create simulations of Peter's brain to test their theories on the soul. Sarkar is a computer whiz and is able to remap Peter's brain as a simulation in a computer program - they download 3 versions of Peter's memories - 3 simulations, Then things become frightening and desperate - when the people that Peter does not like begin to die.
In the middle of this Peter's learns of his wife's infidelity - he is badly shaken. When Hans, the man that his wife had an affair with, is murdered - you end up with a futuristic mystery with drama, stress and ethics problems thrown in. This is a thoroughly entertaining story. A fast pace story, it is also thought-provoking and intelligent.
The only problem with the book that I had was that I thought Peter was just a little too "stilted" in some of his views