Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Terminal Experiment

Robert J Sawyer
Completed 1/30/2021, Reviewed 1/31/2021
4 stars

This is my third book by Sawyer.  The first one I read, Hominids, won the Hugo in 2003.  The second was Calculating God, nominated for several awards in 2001.  This one won the Nebula for 1995.  I liked it this book, even though it’s the same kind of pop-sci fi as the first.  It’s really fast paced and easy reading.  The plot isn’t bad and it’s not quite as soapy as the first.  It also held up fairly well considering it was forecasting the evolution of PCs and the internet sixteen years in the future, which is now ten years in the past.  Primarily, the tech talk isn’t too clunky.  Overall, I found this a very entertaining book.

The plot begins with the brilliant Dr. Peter Hobson who discovers an electrical matrix in the brain that might be the soul.  This causes a worldwide sensation and has all sorts of implications.  This feeds into Peter’s obsessions with life after death and immortality, the later being something that’s being offered with very expensive nanotechnology.  So Peter uses the device he used to record the “soulwave” to map his own neural network and transfer it into a computer using AI software developed by a friend of his.  They create three entities: Spirit, which is supposed to simulate life after death; Ambrotos, which is supposed to simulate immortality; and Control, which is supposed to remain an unchanged copy of Peter.  Everything is going fine until one of the AIs murders someone.

The plot is kind of Crichton-esque, kind of poppy science fiction.  But it works.  Sawyer creates quite a thriller.  The characters aren’t bad either, not wholly three-dimensional, but fairly believable.  Peter, his wife Cathy, his brilliant programmer friend Sarkar, and the detective Sandra Philo, all have some depth, but their relationships are a bit soapy.  The three AIs are a little hard to differentiate, particularly when they are all talking with human Peter.  I think this is intentional, though, reaffirming that they are all copies of human Peter. 

Sawyer does a pretty good job of addressing the idea of morality and what kind of mind would commit murder.  Just what does it take to cross over the line between wishing someone dead and actually causing a death.  Is it Spirit who is already dead and has nothing to lose, or Ambrotos who has all the time in the world, or Control who is the most like Peter?  I found it an interesting exercise to think through these options.  I thought the reveal was a little obvious the way the characters were running through the suspects, but at the same time, it was exciting.

I give this book four stars out of five because I enjoyed it so much.  Is it great literature?  Not really, but I didn’t care.  I was caught up in the story and excited for the reveal and capture of the murderous AI.  I didn’t mind the soapy characters.  Sawyer is considered the “Dean of Canadian Sci Fi” and I can see why.  His stuff is fun, accessible, and thrilling. 

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