memory

Book review: Triggers by Robert J Sawyer

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I recently finished reading Triggers, the latest novel by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J Sawyer. After the television adaptation of his novel Flashforward, there was an obvious desire to tap into a larger market of potential fans. Many of Sawyer's earlier novels had elements of suspense, but none could ever truly be called a thriller. They have all been heavy on the philosophical issues, exploring ideas and thoughts on the meaning of humanity. Book cover for Triggers

Triggers is the combination of this philosophy on the human condition, mixed with high stakes action. Sawyer manages this quite well. While Sawyer's message is as positive as always, the comparison to Michael Crichton's techno-thrillers is more relevant than ever.

Although Sawyer is writing a faster paced story, the primary plot elements are still based on scientific extrapolations, with a focus on what it means to be human. In Triggers, the focus is on human memory. Unlike the common perception of memory as being stored whole and complete, Sawyer draws on recent scientific studies which show that memories are encoded as a series of cues, which are then decoded and interpreted in a framework of our experiences. It is these cues, which contain noteworthy elements, which are then physically stored in the brain. It's a really compelling theory, and explains a great deal about how the legal system now views memory.

Author Robert J Sawyer

In Triggers, Sawyer creates a situation where a medical experiment causes a link to be formed between two people, where the memories of the first could be accessed and decoded by the second. It is a science fiction version of telepathy, with the limitation that only these memory cues are accessed, from formed memories. It's a fascinating premise, and Sawyer gets some good use out of it, with some interesting examples of how it might affect our sense of morality.

At the same time, it challenges our sense of individuality. Certain sensations or events can trigger memories, but how do you decide whose memory is being relived? How could people use this ability to their advantage, with someone else able to recall any of your memories? Omnipresent surveillance is a common theme in Sawyer's novels, playing an important role in Flashforward, the Neanderthal Parallax novels, the Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, and now Triggers. In each novel, the circumstances and implications are different, but in all the cases, they affect our understanding of moral choices.

Triggers is not a perfect story. While the ending could be seen as a logical progression from the original premise, it felt too much like a deus ex machina. As intriguing as I found the earlier science about the physical encoding of memory, I found the further progression rather unsatisfying, and the eventual implications of the story rather unsettling. To make a Star Trek analogy, I greatly prefer the Federation to the Borg Collective.

Despite my dissatisfaction with the ending, Sawyer still writes a compelling story which tackles some interesting issues.

Book Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay's novel Tigana was first published back in 1990, although I first read it in 1999. It has remained one of my favourite novels. I have a signed first edition hardcover, in addition to my paperback reading edition. Tigana is a wonderful novel which examines the power of memories. The theme of remembering is woven throughout, starting with the opening prologue, where the Prince of Tigana muses on what legacy he leaves his country: "Oh, our pride. Our terrible pride. Will they remember that most about us, do you think, after we are gone?" to which his companion states that "the one they that we know with certainty is that they will remember us. Here in the peninsula, and in Ygrath, and Quileia, even west over the sea, in Barbadior and its Empire. We will leave a name" (16). The novel quickly opens to the tragedy of Brandin of Ygrath's great wrath, where in his magic he ripped away the name and cultural heritage of the province of Tigana, such that only those born in the province can comprehend the name.

There may be spoilers after the cut, but the book has been out for over twenty years. It's still a worthwhile read.

For the characters in the novel, memory is an important talisman, a connection to their past. During my most recent reading of the novel, I have been troubled by the narration of the flashbacks. They tend to start with a particular character, such as Dianora, who is thinking about some connection to their past. The flashback begins with a narration from their point of view. In Dianora's case, she remembers her plan to somehow gain entry into Brandin's castle, in order to kill him and redeem her province's name.

However, the narration tends to shift points of view, to the governor of the occupied province, and to that of the tribute ship captain who takes Dianora as hostage. The shift is subtle, and would fit within the narrative structure of the novel, except when one considers the nature of memory, and its importance to the text. This passage and others disrupt the flow of the story ever so slightly for me.

Kay explores numerous moral quandaries, often to do with the elements of choice and freedom. When Alessan binds the wizard Erlein to his cause through a magical connection, the issue of conscription is explored. Other differences of opinion are also explored, namely the different ways in which Brandin of Ygrath could be deposed, releasing the spell on Tigana's name. Alessan firmly believes that both Brandin and the Barbadian sorcerer Alberico need to be taken down at the same time in order to free all the provinces, which others, such as his mother, only care about the fate their own province has suffered. In a way, this reflects the differences between smaller city-states and a sense of growing nationalism which spread through Europe in our history. This is further complicated in the text when Brandin abdicates his throne in distant Ygrath, in order to fully commit to ruling the Peninsula of the Palm. The binding of himself to the lands which he conquered wins himself great praise from the people. In his stand against Alberico, a man who only seeks to gain power to return home and seize the Emporer's throne, Brandin can be seen as heroic, defending his newly claimed kingdom against an invader with no ties to the land. That he originally came as an overseas conqueror is of course another matter.

Possibly the most controversial aspect of the novel is the portrayal of the female characters. Many of the female characters use sex as a weapon, or tool. From Catriana's first encounter with Devin, to her later assassination of the Barbadior ambassador, or through Dianora's love for Brandin, who caused Tigana's name to be wiped from peninsula, the female characters tend to be at war with their own nature.

Possibly the best exception to this trend is that of Alais, who aspires to run her father's business, as a merchant ship captain. In the novel, she represents modesty and innocence, while still providing non-traditional goals and aspirations. As her character is more fully developed at the end of the story, Alais is a foil to the other female characters.

Rereading Tigana was enjoyable. it's not a story without problems, but Kay's novel successfully challenges several moral choices, prompting the reader to consider some issues of debate. It's worth a read.

The Sweet Scent of Wood Smoke

While driving to work this week I was stopped at a red light, where the sweet aroma of wood smoke arrived. This got me thinking about the different forms of heating, and what they mean to me. The idea of central heating started with the Romans and their hypocausts. A large furnace would heat the air underneath the floors of their villas, providing central warmth. In contrast, the dark ages were dark indeed, and cold. Large stone castles and keeps would be cold, with the area around the hearth being the main sources of heat. In some ways, this mirrors the internal withdrawal from the rest of the world.

During the industrial age, the move from the pleasant aroma of wood shifted to the noxious fumes of coal, and later natural gas. While these forms of heating are more consistent over longer periods of time, they still don't provide the same level of comfort as a nice wood stove.

A gas fireplace can provide many of the positive characteristics of a wood stove, and is certainly safer, but doesn't provide me with the same level of perceived comfort. I don't know if it's from watching the wood crackle and spark, or watching the flames dance in ways which gas fireplaces do not, but wood fires seem more animate.

I also associate campfires with family time. At the cottage, we would often roast hot dogs and marshmallows over the bed of coals, while listening to loon songs echoing over the lake.

I'm not surprised when I'm told that scents are closely associated with memories. Even the slight whiff of wood smoke can release some pleasant memories.