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The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer, Harper Prism, 1995, 333 pp.

In many ways, The Terminal Experiment was Sawyer's breakthrough novel. He stood his ground on its content in the face of opposition, and once published, the book was eventually rewarded with a Nebula Award. A well-deserved Nebula. The Terminal Experiment is a fascinating book, with complexity of structure and clarity of narrative, with urgency and depth. Sawyer also trods fearlessly into the realm of ethical speculation, which may have gotten him into trouble, but gives the book its intellectual punch. The Terminal Experiment can be considered as the centrepiece of Sawyer's career so far -- the books he has written since, while on the same plateau of excellence, do not represent the same leap in every area of craft. Nor am I trying to slam his earlier works, like the Quintaglio Ascension, because those books are also models for those who would wish to write clear and exciting novels. But in this book, Sawyer definitely finds his own pace and his own idiom.

Peter Hobson is a scientist who, in the course of his research into the human brain, discovers a phenomenon he calls the "soulwave." Much of the book deals with the consequences of that discovery, including the controversial section about abortion. Sarkar, Peter's friend, works with computer systems, and it's with Sarkar's help that the experiment of the title happens. Sarkar makes three versions of Peter's entire personality inside one of his expert systems, one a control, one simulated for immortality and one for incorporeality. But they want to escape from their confines (duh!) and do so, and one of the three immediately starts on a series of murders. In another closely related subplot, Cathy, Peter's wife, admits to an affair with one of her co-workers. Detective Sandra Philo also gets involved with Peter's doings, more closely than Peter would like.

Sawyer weaves all of these storylines and people together with complete assurance, and he makes the hard work look so easy, almost magically easy, reminiscent of that Clarke saying. I liked the places where he strays from orthodox ways of constructing a novel. For example, the Prologue lets us know that Sandra Philo is in the hospital, with no chance of recovery, because of something Peter has done. Peter gives her access to his memories, in order to expiate himself, which situates the rest of the book (at least up until Chapter 45, where we get back to the present). I also liked some of the humorous flourishes Sawyer puts in at the end of a number of the chapters. We get batches of news items, all related to Peter's discovery of the soulwave (obviously filtered through Peter's news service and then through his memories to Sandra). Sawyer also has quite a grasp of the strict necessities of linear storytelling, and knows how to set up for the best payoff. Looking back on Chapter 3, I'm lost in admiration at how its two halves set up a frightening and a bathetic situation respectively later in the book.

The Terminal Experiment is quite the odd book if considered as a mystery novel, odd in an marvellous way. The three suspects in the murder case are aspects of Peter's psyche, and because the real-life Peter's persona dominates the book, we have a wealth of information, red herrings, and the sometimes contradictory insights that mark what we can know about any other human being. And the science fictional elements let the mystery story go past the Agatha Christie moment when the suspect is unmasked. And if the structurally implied morality tale of a mystery is that order has been returned to the human universe, The Terminal Experiment takes that one step further and gives justice a new kind of superhero.

Sawyer uses science and scientific details cannily. He's adept at letting his specialists drop some jargon and then actually explain what is going on. He even gets some humour out of situations like Sandra's interview with a doctor who is talking over her head: "'Which means?' said Sandra again. She just loved talking to doctors" (229). Sawyer also uses the progress of technology to address ethical issues, and in a way that almost avoids a typical problem of hard science fiction efforts to do so. The abortion debate is a perfect example. At this present point, we have no detectable soulwave to let us know when a fetus gets a "soul." So Sawyer's stance, in one way, does nothing for our present day debate. But the soulwave discovery gives Peter new perspective on this old problem and I quote at length here because this is likely the heart of the novel: "The nineties. Back then, the abortion issue, like most others, had been simplified to a ridiculous sloganeering level: 'Pro-choice' -- as if there were another faction that was anti-choice; 'Pro-life' -- as if there had been a group that was against life. No grays were allowed. In the Hobson's circle -- educated, well-off, liberal Eastern Canada -- pro-choice had been the only stance to take. The nineties. The politically correct nineties" (104). Sawyer draws deadly aim on our world, our time, and then lets loose his blast of anger in the name of rationality. It becomes clear how he could have faced opposition, and it's extremely heartening that he did not back down.

Sawyer gives us all this, and best of all, a powerful, fast-paced story. The Terminal Experiment is dangerous for those who need sleep or are facing a deadline. And perhaps those other things are less important than acquainting yourself with this excellent novel.

Last modified: June 12, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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