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The Terminal Experiment Mass Market Paperback – August 30, 2011
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About the Author
Robert J. Sawyer has been called “the dean of Canadian science fiction” by The Ottawa Citizen.
He is one of only seven writers in history—and the only Canadian—to win all three of the world’s top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo (which he won in 2003 for Hominids), the Nebula (which he won in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which he won in 2005 for Mindscan).
In total, Rob has authored over 18 science-fiction novels and won forty-one national and international awards for his fiction, including a record-setting ten Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (“Auroras”) and the Toronto Public Library Celebrates Reading Award, one of Canada’s most significant literary honors. In 2008, he received his tenth Hugo Award nomination for his novel Rollback.
His novels have been translated into 14 languages. They are top-ten national mainstream bestsellers in Canada and have hit number one on the Locus bestsellers’ list.
Born in Ottawa in 1960, Rob grew up in Toronto and now lives in Mississauga (just west of Toronto), with poet Carolyn Clink, his wife of twenty-four years.
He was the first science-fiction writer to have a website, and that site now contains more than one million words of material.
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So, yes, the more salient topic here is of course the murder aspect: if you’ve read the book’s promotional blurb you know the plot concerns itself with a computer program that in essence comes “alive” and is quite literally killing flesh-and-blood characters out there in the real world. And yes, I’m aware this topic has been out there already; the book was published 20 years ago. But like a great sporting event you’ve seen before, the book handles its certainly “trope-ic” topic in a way that is innovative and fresh and lets us see its concept in a new and stimulating light.
For instance, the artificial intelligence(s) is not the initial focus of central character Peter Hobson: when he is a young medical grad student he has the opportunity to fulfill credit hours by observing a doctor and his team harvesting organs from a motorcycle crash victim’s dead body. Hobson’s early enthusiasm for the procedure is given a horrible shock when he observes the victim’s body go through very life-like -seizures, and afterward the post grad comes up with the idea of creating a neural net not unlike a shower cap that will map the brain’s activity of dying patients. It is through this procedure that he begins to notice a recurrent phenomenon: a small amount of electrical energy seems to “escape” the body and travel onward.
It is because of this phenomenon that Hobson decides to investigate whether there is indeed an afterlife, and wonders if he can mimic it by creating three copies of his brain by cleverly removing certain aspects from two of them: the first will represents life after death; the second, an immortal mind; and finally, the third will be a “control,” or unaltered copy. And yes, one copy seems to be guilty of murder… first one, then two, and then, well….
For me, the suspense is merely a by-product of a great topic; it’s not why I read Sawyer. No, he “sells” his book from the first words on. Though THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT is certainly suspenseful, I don’t feel Sawyer is necessarily merely hoping we will nail-bite our fingers while sitting up all night to read the next page. No, I believe it’s more that TERMINAL is asking us to look at what it is that makes up the human soul, to wonder if there is indeed a “life” thereafter… and, in fact, whether there might be a God. While many might argue that this is not a proper topic for sci-fi – that in fact, this is a better topic for religious books like THE SHACK (by William P. Young) – it’s not one he shies away from: in fact, a decade later this is a KEY factor in Sawyer’s excellent novel CALCULATING GOD (which was nominated for a Hugo award).
Though TERMINAL’s topic is really the soul, it’s handled with Sawyer’s typically wry and clever approach. It’s not just through Hobson’s life that we see things develop...for instance, the story frequently steps back and let us see the topic through a variety of clips from the media. For instance:
“The suicide rates on Native reserves in the United States in Canada, and in the three largest ghettos in the US, were at a five-year high this past month. One suicide note, from Los Angeles, typified a recurrent theme: ‘Something beyond this life exists. It can’t be worse than being here.’”
In essence, Sawyer does what those other great sci-fi authors do: he writes well enough to let his provocative ideas sell the story. In fact, the author drives us to do what we must do with ALL literature, particularly sci-fi, and that is to suspend our disbelief by taking frankly difficult topics and building them step by step. We accept what we are reading because the authors let characters behave like people do, and by melding science fiction with the actions of everyday people and proceeding onward. I have read almost Sawyer’s entire collection and can hardly wait for his next.
A little factoid I’ll throw in here for those who care: I was in near seventh heaven when Hobson relates to us that he is beginning to enjoy what was for him a new author: mystery writer Robert B. Parker’s SPENSER series…which is one of my favorites. Sadly, Mr. Parker passed on a short while ago, though his character(s) live on through other author’s penning new books. I can only hope Robert J. Sawyer is here for decades to come.
Not all Nebula Award novels seem to me to be worthy of that recognition, but this one is. I found the book to be something of a page turner. I wanted to find out what happened to the characters more than I wanted a resolution to the mystery. The characters are very well developed with rich, full lives and confronting their own human failings. Of course, they are not completely real because this is science fiction.
The story centers around three people, the main protagonist, Peter, Peter's wife Cathy, and Sarkar, Peter's best friend. Sarkar is not nearly as developed as the other two but he has enough personality to be more than just a prop.
The novel starts at the end of the story with near resolution of the mystery. There is enough left to keep you wondering. More than that, I had a real interest in how the story got to that ending. Luckily, it makes sense at the end.
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.
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
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I'm now looking to buy the next set of his books.