Mindscan by Sawyer, Robert, 2005

Mindscan by Sawyer, Robert - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I have never been a very big fan of Robert J. Sawyer's work. I once got a book or two by him from the American SFBC, something(s) about intelligent dinosaurs I believe, and so I made my mind up early about him: Not my cup of tea. He seemed a bit too polite to me too, and when I later learned that he was Canadian, that fact seemed to fit perfectly into the picture that I had built up of him in my mind. I must also have picked up this one from the SFBC at that time, because it feels light and has no price tag in the dust jacket. Anyway this one is a bit different, and much better than the other I remember. It is essentially a court-room drama where the key issues are about what it means to be human and an examination of the nature of human consciousness. Sawyer certainly took his time getting going with this novel; the major themes did not really emerge until after the first act was done, and in my opinion Sawyer failed to make a cogent point about the true seat of human consciousness until the middle of the thing. Still, the legal issues and the courtroom drama were very well done, and in the end Sawyer had some interesting things to say about the theory of his subject, if not the actual science behind the technology he chose to use here. It was the best Sawyer piece I have ever read, but as I don't have too much experience with this author, that's not saying too much.

One of the things that I always read SF for is to see how the author deals with the science they have chosen to write about. That seems to me to be of critical importance to a good SF novel, though there are probably some out there who disagree. One phenomenon that I particularly dislike is when authors just use SF themes and tropes as backdrop. In order to write interesting SF, I think, an author has to be capable of imparting at least a fundamental knowledge of the technology that drives the plot. This book was about two characters that had made the decision to download copies of themselves into near immortal mechanical bodies because of very real, looming concerns about their mortality. One of the two main characters, Karen, was an extremely rich old woman who had written a trilogy of books that were as popular as the Harry Potter books. The mindscan transfer was done by a Toronto company called Immortex. As part of the transfer deal, which cost a lot of money, the subject agreed to be copied and downloaded, to transfer all rights and property to the mindscan version of the self, then to be transported to the farside of the moon where they would live out their lives in relative luxury in a resort in a moon creator called Heaviside.

None of that sounded like a very good deal to me, and Sawyer did a pretty poor job selling it. What could be the possible benefit to the individual? There would be no experience here for the subject to enjoy, and death would probably come just as quickly as before the procedure was completed. Not only that, but an automaton would be living your life back on Earth while you were whisked off to the modern equivalent of a gulag in Siberia, from which you could not escape, or even communicate with loved ones. I suppose it was nice that the facility had some pretty excellent sounding hookers, but still, there can be no possible real incentive to undergo this procedure. But I suppose Sawyer needed a story to tell, so several oldsters and Jake, a fortyish man with a potentially deadly circulatory condition, underwent the procedure and allowed themselves to be banished. After the Karen and Jake were mindscanned and their original bodies were sent to the Moon, two things happened that framed the rest of the action in the story. First, Jake's condition was cured while he was on the Moon, which eliminated the reason for him undergoing the process in the first place. Second, the real Karen died on the Moon, and her money-grubbing son Tyler moved to probate her will even though the mindscan Karen was doing just fine on Earth.

I have always thought that the courtroom is an excellent forum for the telling of a story, and if I have to be honest here the storytelling in Mindscan picked up quite a bit in quality when Sawyer moved the action to the courtroom. If you are interested in a legal analysis of this story, look here. Up until this point the description of the technology that enabled mindscans was not very deep. It was what you would have expected to find in a Time Magazine article, for example, if the technology really existed. But all that changed in the trial, because Sawyer used experts to provide testimony about not the technology itself, but about the moral considerations behind the procedure, and the theoretical implications of being able to do it in the first place. Unfortunately though, Sawyer really was not up to the task of doing this. I get the feeling that he bit off more than he could chew. In a long-winded explanation of why Immortex was able to completely copy a human mind without understanding exactly how or where human consciousness was seated within the brain, the expert on the stand for Immortex testified as follows:

"I know, I know - it sounds like gobbledygook. But the point is that this is a quantum-mechanical process and that means we can't even theoretically measure the states without disturbing them."

Certainly that was one character speaking to another about some complex idea that does not translate to lay terms very well. But I wonder how the dialogue would have turned out if someone like Greg Bear had written it, who in the past has written about the topic at hand, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in Anvil of Stars and Moving Mars. Maybe I'm being too harsh here, but anytime I see something like "I know it sounds strange," I think to myself "this author cannot handle the explanation and is copping out." That is exactly what it felt like here, and since it was only one of two places in the entire book where Sawyer tackled the issue of describing the theory behind mindscanning, I have to give him a failing grade for the way he dealt with his technology.

I have a few other complaints about this thing. One thing that I found particularly annoying was Sawyers constant, incessant references to pop culture and the icons of it. The first act of the book was literally a tidal wave of pointless references to names from the culture. Lee Majors, Farah Fawcett, Will Smith, Buzz Aldrin, Paris Hilton, Pat Buchanan (who was an ex-president of the United States!), Stephen Hawking, Arthur C. Clarke, Tom Sellek, Alanis Morissette, and on and on. It was really unnecessary and it came off to my eye as a form of pandering. One other thing that bothered me was the characters themselves. I've seen both Karen and Jake a million times before, and I'm kind of getting sick and tired of them. For example, Jake was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation in his brain called a Katerinsky's lesion. The condition was hereditary, and Jake watched his father stroke out and turn into a vegetable at age 39 from the same thing. Fearful of becoming a vegetable too Jake restricted himself to a hermit's life, never flying anywhere, never taking any changes, never getting upset. Never even having sex, until just before undergoing the mindscan, with a woman he had come to love a great deal. I guess the love he felt was not great enough to prevent him from transforming himself into a silicon and steel monstrosity. After the transformation he showed up at a party at the woman's house expecting nothing to be different. Up until that point Sawyer had even indicated that nothing would. The mindscans were capable of sex, and as far as I could tell they were identical to humans in appearance. All of that changed once Jake went into public, and the language Sawyer used to describe the mindscans suddenly changed to show them as odd and unusual looking. I have yet to reconcile the duplicity in the text, and quite frankly, I'll probably not give another though after this.

From a literary standpoint this book is a failure. Sawyer is not a fool when it comes to the written word; he is capable of putting out something that is readable and interesting and flows along well. But the book is full of holes and ill-explained elements. If it were not for the somewhat interesting thought that Sawyer put into the theorhetical elements, particularly in the discussion of the seat of consciousness in the brain and the nature of the soul, and even more so for the excellently done legal aspects of the story, I would have hated the book.

Told in the voice of a liberal Canadian intelligensia, most of the book reads like a literal finger wagging at the United States trend towards conservatism in the new millennia. The driving force of this book is a sense of the unfairness of it all, and it turns out to be completely immaterial whether it arises from some big corporation that honors its contracts but most likely is up to something else that is no good, or a government that sets up a system of rules that are patently unfair to the underdog. Within that context Sawyer seemed willing to tackle some big concepts, but instead of putting the collaborative or transformational aspects of them up on stage, he uses the failure of imagination of little people with big power to draw a negative message. Is this the stereotypical Canadian support for the underdog showing through, is it sour grapes at the state of the world after our last, horrible administration has thankfully passed into the night, or is it something else entirely? I guess that I tend to think in extremes myself when analyzing situations such as these, but still, it feels to me like I'm on to something. To Sawyer's credit he managed to give both sides of the debate, and although the obvious scorn in the voice of the defense's medico-legal expert speaks volumes about how he may think these debates should resolve. Still, there is some redeemable content here. Give this one a try if you are inclined when you need a book for a flight.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2 star(s)


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