Sunday, March 6, 2011

1995 Nebula – THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT by Robert J. Sawyer

There are lots of little things that annoy me about The Terminal Experiment. 1). The humor is awful (an actual punchline to a real joke in the book: “Vulcan mind melt”). 2). The novel takes place in the distant future year of 2011, and yeah, people watch TV on DVRs and use eReaders, but they also use video phones, have voice-controlled houses, and they have special sleep monitors so they know how much noise they can make when their partner seems to be asleep, possibly the dumbest invention I’ve seen in a sf book. 3). Sawyer also gives us his typical barrage of pop culture references, which would be fine if they weren’t so damn…surfacey. We learn that the main character likes Star Trek and Robert Parker novels, not because they illuminate his character all that much, but because Sawyer likes those things. 4). There’s some petty moralizing as the main character looks down his nose at people drinking alcohol during Friday night happy hour. And then there’s 5). the misguided crusading against organ donation (?!), or 6). the meticulously researched but ridiculous and overwrought “assassination by food-drug interaction” scene. Not to mention 7). the general sense you get from Sawyer novels that Canada is the center of the universe.

So, Robert Sawyer is an author with a few tics, and those tics are bound to get on the nerves of certain of his readers – something annoyed me in almost every chapter here. Still, I’d be willing to overlook these problems if the novel came even close to living up to its central premise(s).

The Big Idea here is that biomedical engineer Peter Hobson accidentally discovers the soul after he invents a super-sensitive nanotech EEG while trying to prove that life-saving organ donation procedures are immoral (?!?!). Oh, and someone else has used nanotech to make people immortal (remember, it is the far-future year of 2011!). We do get some interesting news-clippings about the cultural effects of these discoveries, but Hobson decides that his main goal should be to test their effects on individual personalities…by making three exact computer copies of every aspect of his mind (!!!!). Any of these biotech revolutions would be worthy of an epic science fiction novel, but in The Terminal Experiment, they play out in tandem through a small domestic drama and a generic murder mystery.

Hobson’s copies include an exact “control” copy, a copy that believes itself immortal, and a copy that thinks it is disembodied spirit. Sawyer glosses over the extremely important details of how Hobson and his partner program these differences. But, Peter has recently learned that his wife cheated on him, and one of the copies decides to seek vengeance! There are murders, an uncannily brilliant detective with implausible instincts, and there’s some sort of (dumb) philosophical point about marriage and morality in there. In the end, Sawyer’s writing is okay, but his tics grate. His future feels half-assed, delusionally optimistic, and contrived. And, the Big Ideas trample over each other – they’re jumbled, then buried in a mystery story. The end result is not good at all. I’d say this novel is significantly worse than www:Wake, and I’m again disappointed by the Nebula awards.

I needn’t bother have written all that – Ubernerd pegs this one perfectly in probably his longest review.

Grade: D


  1. Oh dear, and "Hominids" still awaits you. Prepare for more dribble.

  2. Thanks for reading, Emil.

    By the way, I'd love to hear from any Sawyer fans out there. He obviously has a lot, and, since they're sf fans, I'm sure they're smart people. I'm not trying to pick a fight or anything, just curious to hear the other viewpoint.