Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
Published: Analog Science Fiction & Fact / HarperPrism (1994)
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award

The Book:

“After a defining experience as a young student, Peter Hobson had a deep interest in determining the exact moment of a person’s death.  His related research made him a wealthy man, but it was his discovery of the soul leaving the human body that made him a true celebrity.

People frequently ask Peter what the afterlife is like, but he really has no idea. With the help of his best friend Sarkar Muhammed, an AI specialist, Peter decides to answer this question by modeling his own mind in three different versions: one is a ‘control’ version, one is meant to simulate immortality, and one is meant to simulate a bodiless afterlife.  However, the copies were recorded just after Peter’s personal life was rocked by an unexpected betrayal, and it appears to have caused one of the simulations to become a killer!”  ~Allie

This is the second novel I’ve read by Robert J. Sawyer, and it’s definitely my favorite of his novels thus far.  I was not a fan of Hominids, but I’m glad I decided to try another of his novels.  This is another audiobook that I listened to during my daily commute!

My Thoughts:

The science of The Terminal Experiment might not have been terribly realistic, but I thought the fictional science elements (including simulated human minds and the detection of the soul) were really fun. The understanding of computers was a little short-term retro, due to the publication date. For instance, I had to laugh a little bit when after recording the entirety of Peter Hobson’s mind, the narrator commented, “Gigabytes of information had been recorded”.  However, I’ve always been fascinated by the stories including electronic simulations of human consciousness, so I was perfectly willing to suspend disbelief for the story.  As for the existence of the soul, it was interesting to see how the world would change if it could be scientifically proven that there was some kind of afterlife.  All in all, I thought it was a really cool set of ‘what-ifs’ to build a story around.

I felt like the story was as much a drama as it was a murder mystery. The murder mystery part arrives fairly late in the story, so it is important that the reader be drawn in by the protagonist’s life story.  I initially disliked Peter Hobson, mostly for his contempt and his tendency to generalize dislike of specific people to broad categories of the population.  However, though his own personal narrative often glosses over his shortcomings, I felt like the reader was meant to notice and acknowledge his flaws. Most of the focus of the story is on Peter, and on the variations of his personality.  Other characters, including his wife, her co-workers, and her parents, are seen mostly through Peter’s eyes, and so don’t have the same depth.  One secondary character that I particularly enjoyed, though, was his best friend Sarkar—I think that it is not very common to encounter religious scientists in fiction, and even less common to encounter Muslim scientists.

The murder mystery propelled the plot in the later part of the book, but I didn’t think it was the most interesting part of the story.  It seemed like the consideration of the effects of technology on society fell a bit by the wayside when the murder investigation got underway.  The mystery was also very predictable, so there was not much in the way of a puzzle for the reader.  I still found it pretty exciting, though, to see Peter try to work his way to the solution and keep ‘himself’ from killing again. Peter's story was one that was easy to be drawn into, even through audio. In the end, The Terminal Experiment was an entertaining sci-fi thriller that has brightened my daily travels.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Terminal Experiment is a mind-uploading murder mystery that revolves around the drama of scientist Peter Hobson’s personal life.  Though the science is dated, I thought the central speculative ideas of the story—the proof of existence of a soul and the ability to electronically copy human minds—were really fun.  I would have liked for the story to involve more of how these discoveries could affect society, rather than moving into a predictable mystery plot.  All the same, Peter Hobson, and his three electronic alter-egos were interestingly flawed central characters, and I also enjoyed many of the secondary characters that filled his world, such as his friend Sarkar, the AI specialist.  Overall, I enjoyed The Terminal Experiment, and it has left me feeling more positive about trying out others of Sawyer’s novels in the future!

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