Silver Reviews


by Robert J. Sawyer



350pp/$23.95/June 1998

Factoring Humanity
Cover by Shelley Eshkar
and Jan Uretsky

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Robert Sawyer's latest novel, Factoring Humanity, opens with a daughter accusing her father of sexual molestation. Fortunately, this beginning does not dictate the tone of the novel which is, in fact, much more in line with Sawyer's other near-future scientific thrillers, Frameshift and The Terminal Experiment. Kyle Graves, the accused father, is a professor of computer science at University of Toronto who is researching quantum computing. His estranged wife, Heather Davis, is a professor of Psychology working on deciphering the strange signals which have been received from Alpha Centauri over the previous ten years.

Sawyer follows both of their stories as each follows their own research. Frequently, they turn to each other for help, both professional and personal, always hoping they can reconcile, yet never quite knowing the proper words to say. In a review of Starplex which appeared in Nova Express, Lawrence Person pointed out that many of Sawyer's novels include a theme of marital infidelity. Factoring Humanity is not one of those, yet its subplot of incestual child abuse is more chilling than marital infidelity ever could be.

Sawyer includes a vast array of topics in Factoring Humanity, from the aforementioned quantum computing and alien signals, to Salvador Dali, "Star Trek" and artificial intelligence. In good novelistic fashion, he manages to tie his disparate threads together. Unfortunately, knowing Factoring Humanity is a novel and will follow novel narrative structure, the reader is able to see how Sawyer's elements will come together long before his characters are able to make the same conclusion.

As Davis begins to make headway in her search for an explanation, the aliens seem to be able to communicate, if not directly with her, than through her dreams and thoughts. Sawyer raises, and drops, the question of free will as Davis at times seems to act against her better judgement, but at the urgings of the alien voices she seems to be receiving.

One of Sawyer's strengths is his ability to seamlessly weave fact with his fiction. Not just with regard to his science, but on a wider, cultural level. Early in the novel, the computer Cheetah holds a conversation with Graves about the rape of a coma victim by her caregiver. This event and others actually occurred and can be confirmed with a quick web-browse. Sawyer's inclusion of these events cause the reader to wonder which background material Sawyer created and which he lifted from the pages of yesterday's newspapers.

Factoring Humanity is, perhaps, Sawyer's best attempt at showing family life, and he includes some emotional scenes, beginning with Becky's accusation against Grant and continuing through to their final confrontation. Nevertheless, I found myself wishing that Sawyer would show even more of the Grant-Davis family and their relationships to each other, even if it meant leaving out some of the more traditional science fictional plotpoints.

Sawyer first made a name for himself with scientific allegories set on the dinosaur-inhabited planet of Quintaglio. With 1995's The Terminal Experiment, Sawyer turned his attention to writing new-future thrillers which allowed him more leeway in mining the newspaper's headlines. Judging from the aforementioned novels, Illegal Alien and Factoring Humanity, Sawyer has carved a successful niche for himself which he should be able to use to reach audiences outside the traditional science fiction readership.

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