morality

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.

The Fiction of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer published his first novel in 1990, but his first SF publication was a short story called If I'm Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage, in 1981. I don't remember when I first started reading Sawyer's fiction, but I do remember his time as the Edna Staebler Writer In Residence at the Kitchener Public Library, in 2006. During his first appearance, I also met Paddy Forde, Suzanne Church and James Alan Gardner, all local authors in Waterloo Region.

Rob is often one to talk of how perseverance is one of the great assets of a writer. The ability to keep cranking out the words, and the stories, day after day, is one of the signs of a writer. His addition to Heinlein's rules of writing is simple: keep writing.

Clearly another important part of Rob's success is his great skill as a communicator. Not only does his writing express a sense of clarity, but his interaction in person is phenomenal. He has a strong, projecting voice, which is great for public readings. His degree from Ryerson is in Radio and Television Arts, where he specialized in screenwriting, which doubtless helped him land so many guest appearances on television. He also had the opportunity to write the screenplay for one of the episodes of the ABC Flash Forward adaptation of his novel.

When talking with Rob at conventions, he shows an earnest interest in what others think, even when it's some mindless fan (namely myself) uttering a spontaneous, unplanned question at a reading, with no real relevance to the story at hand. Rob is quick to deflate the question with a simple but humourous response, and then follow up later. For those wanting to know: "The reason in WATCH that the CSIS agents flew from Ottawa to Toronto then drove to Waterloo is that the first flight from Ottawa to Toronto arrives at 7:00 a.m.; the first flight from Ottawa to Waterloo arrives at 8:30 p.m. -- and the Toronto airport is less than 75 minutes from Caitlin's school, so you get there earlier by doing it the way I described in the novel."

Rob's fiction is based on important, contemporary issues, often dealing with morality. Whether it's the rights of the consciousness transferred into an android body in Mindscan, or that of a nascent AI in Rob's latest Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, Rob raises ethical issues which arise due to advances in modern technology.

It's quite appropriate when Rob is held up as the answer to the techno-thriller. Often in American SF, technology is shown as being inherently chaotic. Cloned dinosaurs escape, robots travel from the future to kill a boy who would grow into mankind's greatest leader, etc. Instead, Sawyer brings us aliens who say "take me to your paleontologist", exploring issues of faith and morality in a compelling and respectful way.

Some of his greatest short stories, such as Shoulders of Giants, do not contain an antagonist at all, but are instead testaments to the pioneering spirit. Others, such as Just Like Old Times, examine a Canada where state-sponsored euthanasia transfers the consciousness of convicted felons into people (and dinosaurs) from the past.

Rob's stories are designed to provoke thought, to question beliefs, and to raise awareness of the role science plays in modern society. Keep up the good work.