robert j sawyer

Book review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that I've read the latest novel by Robert J. Sawyer. Since Sawyer's novel Hominids was the One Book, One Community reading selection in Waterloo Region several years ago, I've read all his books. Sawyer's most recent novel, Red Planet Blues, is the first of his books that I won't be getting signed. Since I've started reading extensively on my eReader (a Kobo Glo), I've rarely felt the desire to read one of my paper books.

The book cover for Red Planet Blues

What can I say about Red Planet Blues? If you've read any of Sawyer's work in the past, you know what you're getting: a science fiction story with strong philosophical content. Moral questions are raised on the essence of consciousness and identity. What you don't get in this book are dinosaurs, although fossils of another sort play an important role in the story.

Sawyer has adjusted his style for this novel, aiming to target a detective/noir/mystery audience in addition to his existing science fiction audience. I can't judge the effectiveness of his appeal to the new audience, but I can say that he hasn't compromised the expectations of his existing audience. The pace and feel of this story feels consistent with many of his earlier works.

While this is a mystery, it's not a dark and gritty noir. It's more like the Dixon Hill Private Investigator holodeck episode of Star Trek TNG ("The Big Goodbye") than Frank Miller's Sin City, or Blade Runner. While I would have welcomed something a little darker, I don't think that would fit as well with Sawyer's style.

The story pacing is good, which is expected. This is hardly Sawyer's first novel. However, there did seen to be a bit more exposition earlier on, as some fundamental concepts to do with consciousness transference were explained. It's important information, and critical to both the setting and plot, and I reasonably executed. It one of those writing problems: how do you get information to the reader that the protagonist should be reasonably familiar with?

Perhaps the other reason I was sensitive to this is that it's a topic Sawyer has dealt with in the past, so I was already familiar with it. It didn't detract from the novel at all, it was merely something that I was conscious of. For readers outside of the science-fiction genre, or even those unfamiliar with this idea, this exposition is essential.

The primary conceit of the story is that people who have transferred to an artificial body don't leave genetic material around, rendering DNA forensics useless, and the investigative role more important. A reasonable way to bring back mystery to the detective genre. It's an interesting conceit, bringing to mind the film GATTACA, which depends in part upon this DNA evidence, and the ability to misdirect.

It's interesting to see the new world Sawyer has created. There is very little in the way of government or democracy in play. The Mars habitat is instead a corporate domain, with minimal services. The local police force does little beyond protect the corporate interests, and Lomax, the private investigator, does work for clients hoping to get paid. In a way, it's one of the more pessimistic of Sawyer's novels, while still leaning towards a believable realism. With any science fiction novel set on Mars, comparisons to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) are inevitable. Where Robinson's work suffers a little from extreme optimism, and a long-term view of progress, Sawyer's novel focuses on the immediate, with an eye to long-term effects.

I liked Red Planet Blues more than Triggers, Sawyer's previous novel. The ending of Triggers didn't sit well with me philosophically. Red Planet Blues better suits Sawyer's style, even if it does seem to accept a more pragmatic view towards capitalism.

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.

Aurora Award Finalists

The finalists for the Prix Aurora Awards has now been announced. While I've only read two of the nominated works for Best English Novel so far, (Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer), I've read the previous two novels in the series by Hayden Trenholm (nominated for Stealing Home, previous novels reviewed are Defining Diana and Steel Whispers.), and have attended readings by Sawyer, Trenholm and Marie Bilodeau for their nominated works.

I'm also pleased that Suzanne Church (a writer here in the Waterloo Region),  Matt Moore, and Hayden Trenholm are finalists for Best English Short Story. Sawyer is also a finalist for Best English Poem, as are Carolyn Clink, and Helen Marshall.

Douglas Smith (of whom I've mentioned the story Radio Nowhere from the Campus Chills anthology) has a nomination for Best English Related work for his collection of stories (Chimerascope), and John Robert Columbo and Brett Alexander Savory are finalists for the Tesseracts Fourteen anthology.

There's a good article in the Metro News about an Ottawa based group of writers named the East Block Irregulars which includes Trenholm, Moore and Bilodeau which shows how a great group can challenge writers to excel. All of the members of the group have reason to be proud of these accomplishments.

Matt Moore holding Steel Whispers

A photo of SF writer Matt Moore holding his colleague Hayden Trenholm's novel Steel Whispers. Both Moore and Trenholm are nominated for Best English Short Story.

Reflections on the Past Year

While the beginning of January may seem to be a more appropriate time of year for reflecting on the past year, performance review time in the office tends to be mid-February. Despite some challenges, I think this year was quite successful, both in the workplace and outside work. During August, I presented a paper on Paddy Forde's novella "On Spirit" and Rob Sawyer's short story "Just Like Old Times" at the Social Science on the Final Frontier academic conference at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. It was a nice little conference, and it was nice to see Rob Sawyer and Julie E. Czerneda at the conference. This was my second academic paper presented at a conference, and was a lot of fun.

During the year, I didn't accomplish much fiction writing, something which I'm planning to remedy. Part of my problem in the past year is that I haven't made the time to write. I've proven to myself that I can now write 250-500 words a day for blog posts, in addition to my coursework assignments. I'm going to see if I can add fiction writing to these word counts in the next few weeks. If it doesn't seem to be working, I may decide to reduce the size or frequency of my blog posts. It's something that I've been struggling with.

I've done some nice improvements around the home this past year. I'm particularly happy with my garage, now that it's been organized. Previously, neither car would fit inside. Now, both can fit inside, as well as my snowblower. Yes, this is a first world problem, and I'm aware that I'm contributing to urban sprawl, etc. It's a beautiful property, with a very large backyard for spending time with the family, but city transit doesn't come anywhere near here. The way things stand, I'm just not willing to consider alternative ways to get to work.

Federations: The Shoulders of Giants by Robert J. Sawyer

As I've already reviewed one of the other stories in the Federations anthology, I thought I would review "The Shoulders of Giants" written by Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer. This story was the lead story in Star Colonies, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, of DAW books, which was published in June 2000. It was a finalist for the Aurora Award, as the Best English-Language Short Story for 2000. It has since been reprinted in Federations (2009), edited by John Joseph Adams. The text for the story is also available on Sawyer's website, and has also been included in Robert J. Sawyer's short story collection Iterations, published by Red Deer Press in 2002.

The title of this story is an allusion to the words most famously written by Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants" in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676. The phrase can be attributed even earlier, as in 1159, John of Salisbury attributed this phrase to Bernard, a scholar in Chartes.

When one reads science fiction, it's often easy to see only the future, without considering the impact of the past. Science fiction actually has more of a claim on tradition, as it pays homage to many great scientific theories and figures.

Sawyer's story was not quite what I had first expected. There are no physical confrontations. When the people of earth aboard the Pioneer Spirit arrive at their destination in Tau Ceti after 1200 years in cyrogenic transport, they do not find alien beings, but instead other humans. As Sawyer notes, "while the colonists aboard the Pioneer Spirit had slept, some dreaming at an indolent pace, other ships had zipped past them, arriving at Tau Ceti decades, if not centuries, earlier -- Long enough ago that they'd already built human cities on Soror."

The theme that Sawyer presents is both ambitious and modest. The pioneers reached for the stars when they were first within grasp. They reached their objective, only to find their achievements eclipsed by the ones who follow. Sawyer pays homage to the greats authors of science fiction who came before, "Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Herbert, Niven, and all the others upon whose shoulders the SF writers of my generation are fortunate enough to stand."  More than just paying respects to the past, it's an acknowledgement of the importance of reaching for the stars. Without those few giants among us, there would be no stepping stones for future generations.

It's an appropriate story for this anthology, which John Joseph Adams notes in his introduction to the anthology that writers such as Sawyer "are keeping the tradition alive, building on what the generations before have laid out, innovating to keep the sub-genre fresh and vital".