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Mindscan
Robert J. Sawyer
Tor, 304 pages

Mindscan
Robert J. Sawyer
The winner of the Nebula Award in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer has also won three Aurora Awards, Canada's award for excellence in science fiction. His novel Starplex was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula and Hominids won the Hugo for best novel. In addition, he earned the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

Robert J. Sawyer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Relativity
SF Site Review: Hybrids
SF Site Review: Hybrids
SF Site Review: Hominids
SF Site Review: Flashforward
SF Site Review: Frameshift
SF Site Review: Calculating God
SF Site Review: Factoring Humanity
SF Site Review: Illegal Alien
SF Site Review: Frameshift
Steven H Silver's Review of Starplex
Steven H Silver's Review of The Terminal Experiment

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Adam Volk

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Science Fiction -- at least the very best kind of Science Fiction -- isn't really about technology, or alien beings, or futuristic possibilities. No, beneath the surface elements of starships, robots and intergalactic entities, the heart of Science Fiction is -- and likely always will be -- its inherent understanding and exploration of humanity itself. Indeed, what makes Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Dick, and the other grandmasters of SF, so compelling is not their exploration of familiar Science Fiction tropes (as entertaining as they may be), but rather their ability to create stories that were propelled entirely by the philosophical concepts that underpin humanity itself.

It is this careful blend of technology and inherent humanism that is replete throughout the works of Robert J. Sawyer. Indeed, Sawyer is one of a handful of Science Fiction authors working in the field today who is able to blend together a myriad of philosophical, moral, and even legal concepts, with futuristic extrapolations based on real scientific principles. In essence Sawyer's writing does what the very best Hard Science Fiction should do: it uses complex technological concepts to show us what it means to be human.

Sawyer's previous work is filled with this kind of careful balancing act of scientific rationalism and philosophical musing. His Hugo and Nebula award winning Neanderthal Parallax for example, posits an alternate world in which Neanderthals became the dominant species, but Sawyer moves beyond this fascinating premise to explore larger and highly relevant social issues. Similarly, his novel Calculating God, opens with a spider-like alien making contact with Earth and revealing that not only does life exist in the galaxy but that there may be very real, quantifiable proof that God exists. Once again however, this intriguing concept is really a means to an end in tackling the larger philosophical dichotomy between science and religion. In short, in all of Sawyer's vast body of work, the science -- as entertaining, and thought provoking as it may be -- is always a secondary consideration after his well crafted characters and careful study of humanity itself, and it is this purposeful balance that elevates Sawyer's work from Science Fiction escapism into the realm of high literature.

But Sawyer's most ambitious work today is undoubtedly Mindscan, a brilliant and innovative novel that challenges the reader to question not only the world around them, but also themselves. On the surface the novel explores some very familiar themes, namely the nature of consciousness (concepts that Sawyer previously dealt with in The Terminal Experiment and Factoring Humanity), but once again, beneath the surface, is a story that skillfully examines not only what it means to be human, but some of our most profound philosophical concepts.

The story opens with protagonist Jake Sullivan trying desperately to put together the shattered pieces of his life. Afflicted with a fatal neurological disease known as Katerinsky's syndrome, Jake is in his early 40s but due to his condition could conceivably drop dead at any moment. As the scion of a legendary Canadian beer distillery known as "Old Sully," Jake is also an extremely wealthy individual and decides to discard his potentially doomed biological body and replace it with a synthetic android body. The process, known as a Mindscan, is not quite consciousness transferring, but rather using quantum mechanics and advanced computer technology creates an instantaneous copy of an individual's mind, transporting every thought, memory, and emotion into a duplicate android body. In short, the mental "essence" of the human being is digitally copied and superimposed into the complex artificial brain of an android.

With a dismal personal and professional life, a strained relationship with his mother, and suffering from extreme guilt after causing his father to collapse into a coma after a heated argument, Jake decides he has nothing left to lose and consents to the Mindscan process. The remaining biological version of Jake -- known as a Shedskin -- is then required to transfer all legal authority to his android-self, which will continue living (potentially forever) while Jake's biological body is ushered off world to an exclusive resort on the far side of the moon to live out his final days in peace and seclusion.

After the process is complete however, the two Jakes quickly discover the procedure is not quite as simple as it seems. For the biological Jake now residing on the lunar surface, it means letting go of his shattered life, even as he begins to wonder what might have been. For the newly reinvigorated android Jake on Earth, it is a question of rebuilding his life, including dealing with a mother who believes he is merely an automaton simalcrum of her son, and a former love interest who is uncertain of Jake's humanity. To further complicate matters the android Jake begins to fall in love with a fellow Mindscan named Karen Bessarian, an extremely popular children's author. Bessarian however is soon caught up in her own problems, when her estranged son Tyler learns that the biological version of Karen has died on the moon, and thus sues for immediate access to his inheritance. It is at this point that the story evolves into a complex and highly entertaining courtroom drama, with both sides struggling not only to win the civil trial, but also to either prove or disprove that the android version of Karen Bessarian should be recognized as a legitimate being.

Meanwhile, on the surface of the moon the biological Jake learns that a cure has been developed for his once fatal Katerinsky's syndrome, and after undergoing the surgery he is no longer in any danger. Unfortunately, the biological Jake has also given up all legal rights on Earth to his Mindscan, putting the two Jakes on a collision course involving a hostage crisis on the moon, and a showdown that will challenge the very essence of what it means to be human.

In terms of the structure of the novel itself, Sawyer does a wonderful job of alternating between the two versions of Jake, with both "individuals" struggling to find their place in the world and insisting that they are the real Jake Sullivan.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the concept would undoubtedly be clichéd and cumbersome, but in Sawyer's capable grasp the story positively sings, with humor, insight, and depth. Perhaps most impressive of all are some of the courtroom scenes which display a complexity and ingenuity that is absolutely fascinating to read (one can't help but think that Sawyer himself could have a successful career in litigation given some of the succinct forms of arguments displayed by his characters).

And yet, ultimately it is truly the characters that propel the story. Indeed, while the concept of a Mindscan process is an engrossing Science Fiction element, it is the trials and tribulations of Jake himself that draw the reader into the story. In Hard SF in particular it is difficult to create believable characters that the reader cannot help but sympathize with, but Sawyer manages to do it yet again with a skill and clarity that most main stream literary writers would envy. What's more Sawyer explores some of the most controversial and complicated moral, legal and philosophical concepts without bogging the reader down in endless detail. Everything from abortion, to same sex marriage, to the nature of consciousness itself, becomes beautifully and succinctly intertwined with Sawyer's overarching narrative.

In the end, Mindscan is truly a work of literary art. With a brilliant narrative, an intriguing and well-researched scientific extrapolation, and characters that are believable and utterly human, Sawyer has undoubtedly cemented his reputation as one of the foremost Science Fiction writers of our generation.

Copyright © 2005 Adam Volk

Adam Volk may or may not be a zombie cyborg. He is also an editor with EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing (www.edgewebsite.com), a freelance writer, a comic book creator and a regular reviewer for the Silver Bullet Comic Books website (www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com.).


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