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Golden Fleece, Robert J. Sawyer, TOR, 1999, 252 pp. (originally published in 1990)

For more than thirty years, science fiction has lived in the shadow of 2001: a space odyssey. While the movie leaves many viewers with a feeling of boredom or more questions than answers, 2001 also retains the power to inspire awe. And to inspire creativity. The problem of course is matching Kubrick and Clarke's original achievement, and many have stumbled in that task. Clarke himself wrote three sequels which declined in interest and breadth of vision, and the movie version of 2010 was decidedly ordinary. James Cameron's The Abyss was fashioned as homage to 2001, but as soon as that film treated its anti-militaristic theme overtly and went on to display the aliens before our eyes, it became trite and cheesy.

So what happens when a writer's debut novel attempts the apparently impossible task of mining 2001's territory? Disaster, generally speaking. Golden Fleece is Robert J. Sawyer's first novel and it uses many of the same themes and anxieties as does 2001. Incredibly, Sawyer emerges from the shadow of the famous movie by the dint of his own unique creative voice. This book is a trumpet call from a young writer, confident of his own burgeoning writing powers, announcing loud and clear, "Forget 2001! Listen to me and what I can do."

Golden Fleece begins with a familiar sequence. JASON is the sentient computer in complete control of the spaceship Argo, a colony ship carrying roughly ten thousand passengers. As the book opens, JASON murders a woman named Diana Chandler. Why might JASON act in such a HAL-like manner? JASON is in possession of some information that the human crew members do not have, and he is acting to "protect" the mission, just as HAL ostensibly did. We also discover quite soon that JASON has the text of a message from alien intelligences elsewhere in the galaxy and is trying to decipher it. The aliens of Golden Fleece are as cryptic as the monoliths or the monolith-makers, and the enigmatic presence of the Other drives the narrative in similar ways in both cases.

The narration is Sawyer's first way of differentiating his book from 2001. HAL was likely the most interesting character in 2001, and Sawyer makes the cunning choice of using JASON as a first person narrator. Sawyer uses a wonderful opening sentence for the book: "I love that they trusted me blindly" (13). JASON is not miserly with any of the details of his nefarious schemes, and we are drawn along with him as he rationalizes murder and deceit with the utmost logic. In the field of science fiction, writers seldom use the unreliable first person narrator, and Sawyer himself only goes so far with the idea. Generally, we can trust the facts in JASON's narration, but the meaning behind them is often left up to us.

The Argo has a much bigger crew than 2001's Discovery, and Sawyer works hard to give us a functioning community of human beings. Aaron Rossman is probably the main character apart from JASON, and Aaron was formerly married to Diana. The death of Diana hits Aaron especially hard, considering that JASON has made her last actions to seem like a suicide, and a suicide due to Aaron's unceremonious termination of their marriage. Aaron digs into the matter tenaciously, and eventually he gains possession of the same information that JASON killed Diana to hide. JASON hesitates to kill Aaron, due to the difficulty of covering up another murder. What will JASON do next? What will the other humans do when they discover the truth?

Although I won't reveal more of the plot of Golden Fleece, I do want to make a brief comparison of the endings of this book and 2001. There are many parallels between the two, perhaps even to the fate of the two sentient computers, but the meanings are entirely different. In one sense, Sawyer retreats while Kubrick and Clarke boldly cast forward into the new. However, Sawyer seems to be implying that there is no need for a Star Child, that despite our flaws, humanity can still survive and thrive as we stand today.

It is interesting to see the possibilities in this novel in the light of Sawyer's subsequent career; it's hard to believe Sawyer has been publishing novels for a scant ten years. He didn't follow up much on the stylistic innovations of Golden Fleece, especially the unreliable first person narrator, with the exception of such things as the diaries in End of an Era. Sawyer has made good on the promise of exciting new ideas in well-written narrative that Golden Fleece first demonstrated. Golden Fleece itself stands up quite well to such later triumphs as the Nebula-winner The Terminal Experiment, and it's a worthy successor of 2001.

First posted: January 4, 2000; Last modified: March 30, 2004

Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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