Tag Archives: Robert J. Sawyer

Watch, Robert J. Sawyer

Viking Canada, 2010, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06742-8

Second volumes in trilogies are the hardest to review, in part because they offer no compelling questions to answer.  First volumes?  Easy: Reviewers can get by with a simple description of the premise, the tone, the style, the characters and end on a note that wonders about where the trilogy is going.  Final volumes?  Again, easy: The reviewer can simply say whether the final volume deviate from the style established in the series and whether it fulfills expectations.  But second volumes… In today’s highly-optimized, heavily-managed genre publishing environment, second volumes aren’t much more than bridges meant to take readers from first to final volume.  The trilogy usually being sold to the publisher and the reader as a unit, it’s in the author’s and editor’s best interest to make sure that the approach remains consistent with the first volume, and that any dramatic differences are toned down.  At best, second volumes offer a few answers, plot points and character development.  At worst, we simply turn in circles until more plot coupons are collected.

Since “What Would Robert J. Sawyer Do?” has become one of the most reliable barometers of professionalism in the written SF field, you can bet that Watch (aka WWW: Watch in the US market) does not take any radical departures from the approach and theme set in Sawyer’s previous Wake.  The series is meant to be a procedural SF thriller describing the development of an artificial conscience from the World Wide Web, and this second volume simply pushes the plot a bit further along.  After revealing itself to blind teenage prodigy Caitlin Decter, emerging AI Webmind continues to learn about humans.  What’s new in the volume are the first hints of conflict, as an American government organization notices something strange on the Internet and starts wondering whether Webmind is a threat to national security.  Meanwhile, another plot threads converges to reinforce the trilogy’s theme of non-human consciousness.

In terms of stylistic approach and tone, Watch seamlessly integrates with Wake, which is to say that everything good and bad about the first volume extends here: Further observations on Canadian/American differences, awkward pop-culture references, facts so obvious dumped as exposition as to qualify as hand-holding, the portrait of a bright blind teenager and the restraint with which Sawyer circles a familiar idea to Science Fiction readers.  You can re-read my review of the first volume and re-apply it in its entirety to this follow-up without being led too far astray.

As a reviewer, this leaves me stuck with an unusual, almost daring tactic for reviewing Watch: Focus, for once, on Sawyer’s strengths as a writer.  What does work in Sawyer’s fiction… as exemplified by Watch?

The first strength that does come to mind is clarity: Sawyer’s prose is unusually easy to read even in the most challenging public-transit environments.  His characters are sharply defined, the issues are clear, plotting ambiguity is kept to a minimum (he’s reliably more nuanced in matters of moral ambiguity) and his classical approach to plotting means that it’s not hard for readers to locate themselves within the structure of the novel.  The sometimes-infuriating hand-holding for readers less used to SF’s idioms and common references is a deliberate aspect of this stylistic choice, and it helps Sawyer reach audiences well beyond SF’s usual readership.

This clarity of execution usually comes bundled with a somewhat more ambitious speculative intent meant to deliver satisfaction for SF genre readers.  If you read Watch’s Chapter 42 carefully, for instance, you’ll find an explanation for advanced consciousness (ie: “it overrides evolutionary pressures, preventing a race to the bottom”) that can be interpreted as a counterpoint to the somewhat more sombre conclusions reached by fellow Torontonian hard-SF authors Karl Schroeder (Permanence) and Peter Watts (Blindsight).  This specific example is also an illustration of Sawyer’s quasi-constant optimism: his novels seldom feature outright villains (the universe is antagonistic enough, especially when there are ideas to discuss along the way), his protagonists are rarely defeatists and his endings usually point the way to a better tomorrow.  Given the sad chorus of doomsayers that seem to dominate much of the contemporary SF scenes these days, it’s easy to see why Sawyer’s fiction can reach an audience looking for something that won’t encourage them to put together a survivalist stockpile.

For worse or for better, Watch is a typical Sawyer novel that plays to his usual weaknesses and strengths.  As an exploration of non-human consciousness, it’s more detailed than the usual SF hand-waving.  Its protagonist Caitlin is still as sympathetic as she was in the previous volume, and it sets up the required pieces in time for the final volume of the trilogy.  It’s a second volume that does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and readers who made it to this second tome are sure to pick up the third volume Wonder.  As for critics of Sawyer’s usual approach, let’s take a page from his prose and blow our fragile little minds with the little-known proverb “Dogs bark, but the caravan goes on”…

Wake, Robert J. Sawyer

Viking, 2009, 356 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06741-1

[The usual disclaimer: I’ve known Robert J. Sawyer since 1995.  He knows me well enough to know that I take it as a compliment when he teases me in front of a crowd at one of his book launches.]

Every time I read a Robert J. Sawyer novel, I have to brace myself for frustration.

I know that I’m going to find enough fascinating material to justify reading the novel.  I also know that Sawyer’s writing techniques will run counter to my own preferences.  The usual suspense is whether the fascinating will outweigh the frustrating.  I’m usually left focusing on what’s interesting about any given novel rather than try to balance the positive against the negative.

So it is that the most interesting thing about Wake is its emphasis on its protagonist, a bright blind teenager named Caitlin.  As a budding nerd in the best sense of the word, she’s not completely dissimilar to the middle-aged scientists who usually form the bulk of Sawyer’s protagonists… but her blindness and young age set her apart.  Freshly emigrated from Texas to Waterloo, Caitlin is in many ways a typical high-school girl.  In others, though, she’s a Science Fiction fan’s favourite: an inquisitive geek who suddenly gets a chance to try an experimental procedure that may restore her sight.  Things don’t turn as expected, though, and before long she’s communicating with an entity that lives in the lost packets of the web, a brand-new intelligence who has to learn how to see the world at the same time as Caitlin.

Compared to previous Sawyer novels, what’s different about Wake is the time it spends playing around with a more restrained idea.  In what is almost certainly a symptom of a first volume of a trilogy, this novel explores a relatively limited premise in greater detail, and takes its time in developing its storyline.  It’s not exactly slow, but by the end of the book, not much has actually happened and at least one subplot doesn’t lead anywhere yet.  Readers looking for traditional conflict may have to wait until the sequels.

On the other hand, that pacing allows Sawyer to fully sketch out the process through which Caitlin learns to see, and the precise steps his native web intelligence uses to develop its own consciousness.  It’s not always credible (the reams of colloquial English writing available on the web makes it unlikely that an emergent web intelligence would speak in older public-domain cadences, however amusing the idea) but it occasionally leads to impressive scenes: Caitlin’s vision breakthrough is a fine piece of scene-building, compensating for a number of overdone first-person passages best read using William Shatner’s voice.  (“Being… but not becoming.  No marking of time, no past or future—only an endless, featureless now, and, just barely there in the boundless moment, inchoate and raw, the dawning of perception…” [P.1])

Of course, many of Sawyer’s usual tics remain obvious: As with many of his latest novels, it’s deeply stepped into cultural references (both pop and geek) that immediately date it to 2009.  Sawyer’s obvious nationalism also pops up thanks to a heroine whose seemingly sole reason for being American so far in the trilogy is to provide a running commentary on what’s different between the US and Canada.  Furthermore, Sawyer’s tendency to not just make lousy jokes, but explain them immediately betrays a grating amount of hand-holding for readers who may not be familiar with his references.  This, to me, is the most frustrating aspect of Sawyer’s writing these days: I don’t doubt that it’s a conscious set of techniques to appeal to a far larger readership than just the core genre SF readers, but it does make the reading experience far more frustrating for those who are already a step ahead of others.

Still, who am I to complain about techniques that have obviously proven successful?  Sawyer seems to be outselling most of his core-genre colleagues, and earning far more mainstream attention than genre-oriented writers usually get.  He’s also, significantly, earning quite a bit of popular affection within the SF genre community as well –Wake won the Aurora Award, and is now nominated for the Hugo as well.

All of this is a useful reminder that even if Sawyer’s writing style is often annoying enough to send me gnawing on the nearest chill-pill, his core strengths remain unarguable: Intriguing speculations, accessible prose style, optimistic outlook (something that Hugo voters can only appreciate this year) and an addictive quality that makes even frustrated readers coming back for just one more book.  Or two more, as this new trilogy would have it.

Rollback, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2007, 320 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-31108-5

From time to time, I like to think about well-known authors in terms of ecosystems: Once past a certain level of longevity or notoriety, the author earns a niche and becomes part of the vast machine of publishing. Truly well-known authors even become references for booksellers and casual readers. Stephen King means horror. Tom Clancy is still, two decades after his best work, Mister Technothriller. Dan Brown has become the first recommendation for contemporary historical thrillers. Here in Canada, Robert J. Sawyer has become the voice of Science Fiction in no small part due to a deliberate effort to write a type of science-fiction that is designed to appeal to the book-buying majority.

If a middle-aged reader walks in a bookstore casually looking for a science-fiction novel, Sawyer is an automatic recommendation: His fiction is cleanly written in straightforward prose, generally take place in familiar near-future settings and tackles issues of interest to the well-educated middle-aged readers statistically most likely to buy books. Add to that Sawyer’s uncanny media savvy and you end up with a natural, safe choice for everyone.

His latest novel, Rollback, clearly shows why Sawyer is at the top of his game. It’s a novel that couldn’t have been written by anyone but Sawyer, and it clearly illustrates Sawyer’s core preoccupations. It’s accessible in form, content and atmosphere, featuring a classical approach to science-fiction that many casual readers won’t find in many other contemporary works of genre Science Fiction.

Like many Sawyer novels, Rollback finds its plot in high technology and old-fashioned matrimony: When an astronomer working on SETI messages is offered a chance for expensive rejuvenation, she negotiates a similar treatment for her husband. But dramatically enough, her treatment fails even as her husband sees the decades roll back. But youth doesn’t always go well with experience as he deals with the unique complications of being an old man in a rejuvenated body. Home life is messy, and the world outside doesn’t offer much respite for a man out of time. Meanwhile, the decryption of the SETI messages reveals a surprise about the nature of the aliens at the other end of the line…

Readers of Sawyer’s post-Frameshift period will immediately feel at home: The prose is limpid, the protagonist is a Toronto-area baby-boomer and the themes once again revolve around philosophical questions. Sawyer has long been a proponent of “Phi-Fi” (“Philosophical Fiction”), and this attitude finds its best expression so far in Rollback as it describes questions of longevity and morality in a way that will feel relevant to most readers. Sawyer’s treatment of “old man in a young body” is rich in speculation, yet feels considerably more down-to-earth than most similar tales. Among other strengths, Sawyer is able to present solid Science Fiction without necessarily burying casual readers in a deluge of genre conventions. Combined to the easy style and the baby-boomer cultural references, it makes it easy to see why Sawyer is so successful in his chosen niche.

But this choice also carries consequences that will be most visible to demanding genre readers. More than any other Sawyer novel so far, Rollback feels like a book aimed at a specific demographic niche: The sheer accumulation of Toronto-area English-Canadian middle-class baby-boomer pop-culture references can be irritating at times. Some of the plot contrivances feel forced: it’s hard to believe that a successful rejuvenation patchwork of treatments would resist downward price pressures for so long given the near-universal demand for them. (But it can give rise to some interesting back-of-the-envelope calculations: How expensive could such procedures be?) Sawyer’s straightforward plotting can be obvious at times: Lenore Darby’s second appearance in the novel blatantly telegraphs her plot purpose. Rollback‘s adherence to Sawyer’s core themes can also becomes repetitive, as I couldn’t help but be amused at the revelation of the alien message content: “The aliens are interested in the very same things that fascinate Robert J. Sawyer? What are the odds?!” And while few casual readers will complain about Sawyer’s straightforward prose style (which is clear enough to be read in a distracting hotel lobby environment), it’s yet another element that sets Sawyer’s work apart from the generally more ambitious genre SF novels aimed at readers with tougher literary standards.

In some hilariously ironic sense, it’s possible that Sawyer has consciously limited himself to an mainstream-friendly, best-selling niche. In a sense, his novels are critic-proof: They reach their audience, give them a good time and so encourage the sales of his next novels. Better yet, they can’t be dismissed easily by the more nitpicky genre readers, who will still find something to like in the middle of specific cultural references and familiar Sawyer tics. If Robert J. Sawyer has become an ideal gateway to Science-Fiction readers, it’s appropriate that Rollback ends up being an ideal gateway to Robert J. Sawyer’s specific brand of SF.

Relativity, Robert J. Sawyer

ISFIC Press, 2004, 304 pages, US$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-9759156-0-6

You may not have heard about ISFIC Press before, but don’t feel bad about it: Robert J. Sawyer’s Relativity is their first title. Following in the footsteps left by the venerable Boston-based NESFA Press, the ISFIC (Illinois Science Fiction in Chicago) fan association has decided to publish anthologies of material from their WindyCon Guests of Honor. Whether this represents another encouraging sign about small-press genre publishing will be a question best left to other pundits; what is certain is that the quality of Relativity promises much for the publisher’s next projects.

Naturally, Relativity is aimed at fans and collector of Robert J. Sawyer’s work. Few of the material included here is original. Half of the short stories have appeared in Sawyer’s fiction anthology Iterations, and almost all of the non-fiction content is already available on Sawyer’s web site.

But as even e-book enthusiasts will admit, there is something nice about well-designed paper copies of on-line material. There is something even nicer in bringing together a bunch of material in a carefully-crafted package. I may have already read more than three-quarter of Relativity over the years, but that didn’t stop me from re-reading it almost cover to cover: Sawyer’s prose may sometimes be clunky, but it’s seldom any less than compelling.

The biggest strength of Relativity compared to Iterations is that it reprints mostly non-fiction and has carefully selected which stories to reprint. (Not all of Sawyer’s short fiction is worth re-reading twice; the man’s a natural novelist and he doesn’t cope well with the constraints of the short form).

In the fiction category, Relativity deservedly re-prints a number of Sawyer’s best stories, including “Just Like Old Times”, “The Shoulders of Giants”, “The Hand You’re Dealt” and “Star Light, Star Bright”. To those, it adds a number of stories published since Iterations‘ release: “Immortality”, “The Stanley Cup Caper” (Ergh said the critic), “Relativity” and the Hugo-Nominated “Ineluctable.”

The decision to focus the rest of the book on non-fiction is for the best: Sawyer’s non-fiction work is a model of clear writing and even those who can’t read his fiction without wishing for a red pen will be a lot more enthusiastic about his essays. The real meat of the book comes after the stories, with essays, columns, articles, speeches and a lengthy autobiography. As mentioned before, most (if not all?) of that material is available on Sawyer’s web site. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

For instance, I have heard “The Future is Already Here” once and read it another time (vehemently disagreeing with parts of it both times), but I couldn’t help but read it another time here. Also included in the speeches section are short gems like Sawyer’s 2003 Hugo Awards acceptance speech, a reference-studded speech about AI in SF and an off-the-cuff speech about SF’s relationship with social change. Whoever has seen Sawyer at conventions knows that he’s a capable public speaker, and part of his success depends on his well-written source material.

Relativity continues with a series of shorter pieces on subjects as diverse as Canadian SF; SF conventions; Judith Merrill; God and SF; why write trilogies; why privacy may not such a good idea; three pieces about the future and two more articles on Margaret Atwood. While many of Sawyer’s references will be familiar to genre readers, those pieces were usually destined to a more general audience, and despite some repetitious content, they’re still well-worth reading.

The next fifty pages bring together twelve short columns about the craft of writing, columns originally published in On Spec magazine. Here Sawyer reveals a few tricks of the trade in his usual lucid fashion. People interested in the nuts-and-bolts of Sawyer’s technique may learn much here: not just about writing, but also about the way would-be professional authors should act when confronted with the cold realities of the marketplace.

Relativity ends with a lengthy but highly informative autobiographical essay, as well as a complete bibliography. Another end-piece by Valerie Broege is billed as a “critical essay”, but it’s far more laudatory than critical, not to mention repetitive after the previous 300 pages of material: Sawyer simply does a better job at speaking about himself. Mike Resnick’s introduction is much more interesting. Oddly enough, a crossword completes the book.

People who already like Sawyer’s work won’t need to be told twice about this book, though its limited availability may mean that they’ll have to wait until the next convention dealer’s room to find a copy, or simply order it on-line. Even those who are skeptical about Sawyer’s short stories may want to give a look to the non-fiction material –although it must be said once again that most of it is available on-line. In the end, Sawyer fans and collectors will know whether they want the book or not: As it stands, it’s a beautiful collection of material, worth reading or re-reading.

Mindscan, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31107-0

Only cranky critics can call award-winning books “disappointments”, and so let me be bold in saying that Mindscan is a return to form for Robert J. Sawyer after the award-winning “Neanderthal Parallax” trilogy. Granted, Hominids (2002, Book One of the Trilogy) won the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Still, most fans and readers will be reluctant to call this one of Sawyer’s best, especially as the trilogy went downhill in Humans and Hybrids (both 2003). But all is forgiven with Mindscan, his newest standalone novel.

With it we see a return to what he does best: the rigorous exploration of an idea. Here, the concept is consciousness transfer: What if it was possible to duplicate consciousness in an artificial body? How do you redefine identity? Who, of the copy or the original, is the real person?

In order to play around with the concept, Sawyer resorts to a protagonist with a time-bomb ticking in his skull: thirtysomething Jake Sullivan is afflicted with the (fictional) Katerinsky’s syndrome: At any time, a fatal stroke could kill him. So when immortality through consciousness duplication is introduced to seniors, young Jake sees it as a way to solve the niggling problem of his impending sudden death. There are a few complications, though: As the “original’ Jake is shipped away to a far-off lunar base for permanent relocation, his copy is embroiled in a few adventures of his own…

If you’re a long-time reader of Sawyer’s fiction, a lot of Mindscan‘s material will feel familiar. The way Sawyer kicks an idea around for a few hundred pages. The blatant Canadian nationalism. (In this future fifty years removed, Canada has become a liberal paradise whereas the US has devolved into this ultra-conservative religious state) The fondness for courtroom drama.

Sadly, many of Sawyer’s faults also make return appearances. For all of his skills in exploring ideas and his patience in researching all aspects of his stories, Sawyer still can’t break out of a rather pedestrian writing style. Bad jokes are bandied about as if they were unbelievably witty. The dialogue is banal. Many sentences are clumsy: you just look at them and think “There’s got to be a better way of saying this!” There’s a pedantic quality to Sawyer’s writing that quickly becomes annoying, almost as if he didn’t trust his readers to understand the material. It leads to on-the-nose writing which has to be ignored if the book is to be enjoyable.

In addition to these usual flaws, Sawyer can be a little bit too quick and silly in setting up the mechanics of his plotting. Here, you can guess part of the plot-line as soon as they announce that the copied persons are shipped off to the Moon (why so far? Etc.) for permanent relocation. It sounds like a bad idea, and it is. The pro-Canadian angle is also annoying -even to a fellow Canadian- given how it ignores that not all Americans/Canadians are happy with the current state of things and assumes that current trends will simply go on without cyclical shifts. (But that takes me into the whole “societies aren’t monoliths” rant I went into in a previous review of Sawyer’s work.)

Still, I’m buying Sawyer’s stuff in hardcover for a reason, and that reason is that even with the usual stylistic flaws, his work is top-notch when comes the time to straight-up extrapolation. Sawyer does a lot of thinking for every one of his novel, and Mindscan delivers a lot of satisfying SF content as it explores issues of consciousness and identity. While the ending of the novel is easy and disappointing (in a “no man, no problem” kind of fashion), the slingshot epilogue almost redeems it with a mind-expanding finish to a satisfying novel. Good stuff.

Perhaps best of all is the sense that this is a return to form for Sawyer, who really should stick to standalone novels from now on. It’s perhaps my favourite Sawyer book since Flashforward in how it defines its area of interest, and then proceeds to explore every single facet of it. As is usual with the author’s work, you can read this book in one single sitting, and chances are that you will want to: Once the plot is launched, there’s no chance to be bored.

Hybrids (Neanderthal Parallax #3), Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2003, 396 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87690-4

And so the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy ends, not with a bang, but with a tacked-upon conclusion driven by a mustache-twirling villain. In some ways, this is a fitting end, an adequate finish to an adequate series that had both good and bad moments.

You shouldn’t be reading this review if you haven’t yet started the trilogy, and you shouldn’t start the trilogy if you don’t intend to finish it. Suffice to say that the plot finally starts to roll in this third volume, as every element laboriously set up by Sawyer during the first two volumes finally comes into play. The Earth is threatened by an abrupt reversal of its magnetic poles. Evil villains take a long hungry look at this new unspoiled alternate Earth. Mary and Ponter want to have a kid. Whee!

If any overly sensitive Americans, misogynists or fundamentalists were left in the room after the first two volumes of the series, they’re in for further shocks: The only American character of note turns out to be a lunatic with dreams of trans-universal conquest (how droll), our female protagonists muses at length on the destruction of human males and the novel more or less ends up celebrating a multi-racial bisexual marriage à trois. Whew! Check your prejudices at the door, a Canadian liberal is on a rampage!

There is indeed some shock value built into this trilogy (witness the graphic sex scenes, for instance) and one gets the feeling that Sawyer is consciously pushing the envelope in order to piss off some people who ought to be offended. It’s all good fun, though it’s not pulled off quite as subtly as it ought to be. That type of material requires a deft touch and I’m not sure that Sawyer’s typically unsubtle style is appropriate for it. (I will once again remain bemusedly coy on the aftermath of the “rapist” subplot of the trilogy.) On the other hand, Sawyer’s treatment of the religious theme of the trilogy ends up someplace different than I expected given the author’s past track record; good.

It’s somewhat of a relief, though, to see the plot moving after nearly two volumes’ worth of nearly constant exposition. Alas, the plot development sometimes feel quite a bit silly, such as when this isolated Neanderthal scientist ends up possessing the Magical Plot Device that not only turns out to be vitally important to our protagonists’ happiness, but also contains the seeds of destruction for both worlds! (Here are a few more explanation points to sprinkle freely in the previous sentence: !!!!!!!) Who would have thought that a whole industrial civilization would be useless in coming up with this stuff? Or that such a useful technology would stay banned like that, once again by a curiously monolithic civilization? (If you want to keep on nitpicking, you can also note my objections to rapid plague vectoring in a dispersed civilization. But I’m not forcing you to.)

Generally speaking, I was also somewhat disappointed to see the direction taken by the latter two books of the trilogy. By focusing on two individuals and a very short time span, it merely suggests a bigger story worth telling: How contact between the two societies would ultimately result in some pretty significant changes along the way on the two worlds. The monolithic Neanderthal society, in particular, would seem to be ripe for some dramatic changes. But that may only serve to highlight the lack of political depth (as in “various interests competing”) in Sawyer’s otherwise expansive imagination of the Neanderthal civilization. (Eek; is he planning a sequel?)

Silly stuff, but it’s hard not to see it with some affection when Sawyer’s writing style is so devastatingly efficient. A screwy novel that doesn’t take any time to read isn’t the worst thing in the world. Indeed, even the “Basic Suspense 101” twists that Sawyer keeps throwing in the second half of the book have a certain well-worn charm.

But this is hardly Hugo-worthy stuff, and it’s not hard to share some pundits’ dissatisfaction with Hominids taking home The Big One in September 2003. I like Sawyer, and I think that some of his stuff is well worth reading. In the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, one gets the feeling that he did try for more ambitious material and succeeded only mildly. Still, the effort is commendable, and we can only wait for his next effort.

Humans (Neanderthal Parallax #2), Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2003, 384 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87691-2

Ding! In this second round of the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, the plot thickens slightly, the exposition continues unabated, hard-core interspecies naughtiness is graphially described and a distasteful subplot is resolved in a manner that will strike some as silly and others as ridiculous. Sawyer’s usual preoccupations with theology and matrimony are also finally allowed to simmer to the surface. As if that wasn’t enough, more explicit Canadian flag-waving also ensues. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.

When we last left Hominids, the (mostly) self-contained first volume in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, a quantum bridge had been opened between two civilizations in alternate universe: Our human world and another one evolved from what we know as Neanderthals.

Things aren’t simple as this second volume gets underway. Neanderthal physicist Ponter Boddit may start the novel in his alternate reality, but it doesn’t take a long time until he back in ours again as an assistant-ambassador. Meanwhile, Marie Vaughan may have been snapped up by an American think-tank, but she too doesn’t end up spending a lot of time away from Ponter. Later on, she even makes the trip over to the other universe and gets to see the differences between the two societies for herself. There is an assassination attempt (I’m not telling where or how), a Significant Scene between Ponter and Mary and one or two ominous developments regarding events in the upcoming third volume, but otherwise that’s the extent of Humans‘ plotting.

What abounds, however, is plenty of exposition and speculation thinly disguised as dialogue. Neanderthal society, in this trilogy, has never known agriculture, has managed to develop information-age technology while side-stepping industrialization and has unanimously agreed on not only ritualized mating, but also the omnipresence of personal life-recording devices. With such radical notions, it fall to Sawyer to make us understand how this may have happened, or at the very least sufficiently suspend our disbelief. As a lifelong hard-SF fan, I’m easy when it comes to disbelief suspension, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean my agreement with Sawyer’s thinly-developed thesis. While the first volume hand-waved away doubts about the sustainability of development without large cities, Humans half-heartedly attempt an explanation in a horribly condescending chapter (Twenty-Four: P.210-221) that mixes Native American smugness (!) with silly non-rhetoric (“Hello!” said Henry “Earth to Angela!”) that ends up proving not much if the exact opposite of Sawyer’s argument. Add that to the “unified society” fallacy (in which alien societies are monolithic blocks where no dissension is ever expressed and where such whoopers as massive birth regulation are enacted with nary a peep) and the whole trilogy suddenly seems based on very wobbly foundations. In short, I wasn’t convinced. And I found it Highly Significant that the prehistoric annihilation of humans in the Neanderthal universe is never seriously discussed.

I’d like to comment on the resolution-of-sorts of the “rapist” subplot, but I can’t trust myself to do it without being sarcastic. Your Mileage Might (Hopefully) Vary.

But onward. For being a nitpicker is just no fun when confronted with such an easily readable book. While some of the material may be exasperating, it’s a creditable effort to develop an interesting alternate society and imagine what could happen if a brand-new Earth was discovered right alongside ours. As usual, Sawyer’s prose is lean, clunky, and instantly readable. There are better, more satisfying novels out there, but few of them are as absorbing as Sawyer’s work; even as you’re protesting rather loudly against what’s written down, you can’t help but to turn the page to see what happens next.

Which will bring us, eventually, to the conclusion of the trilogy

Hominids (Neanderthal Parallax #1), Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2002, 444 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87692-0

I was lucky enough to be in the audience when Robert J. Sawyer won the 2003 Best Novel Hugo Award for Hominids, the first tome in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. While everyone in the room got to hear a wonderful acceptance speech, pundits on the net weren’t so impressed: Over the next few days, anguished comments protested the decision and blames the local-area vote of sabotaging the results. Hey, don’t look at me: I didn’t vote for the book because I hadn’t yet read it, and I hadn’t yet read it because the three volumes of the trilogy hadn’t yet come out. It took another month for me to take a look at the book and find out for myself whether the furor was deserved. As it turns out, Hominids is a flawed book, and certainly still not my choice for the Hugo Award. But it is worthy of vitriol? Maybe. Let’s see.

Plot-wise, this first volume is a thin introduction. A freak quantum science experiment on an alternate Earth sends Ponter Bodditt, a Neanderthal scientist, to our own present-day reality. In this universe, we struggle to understand what happen. On theirs, the unexplainable disappearance of Ponter leads directly to a murder trial for his lab partner. Both plot-lines are resolved when (as it was bound to happen), the link is re-established between the universe. All is well that ends well… maybe.

But Hominids isn’t a story as much as it’s a series of discussions, demonstration and digressions on a bunch of topics such as parallel evolution, Neanderthal sociology, the legalities of extra-dimensional visitors, privacy-less societies, human follies and many other subjects. No wonder if some old-school SF readers will find themselves at home in Sawyer’s novel; the (pseudo-)integration of that didactic material will instantly be familiar to anyone who’s read his fair share of, say, Asimov.

There is a lot of material discussed and references, so be prepared for a lot of false dialogues meant to convey pure ideas (not a quote: “We Neanderthals never developed agriculture” “Don’t you say!” “Our cities are very small” “No way!” “Our males and females live separately” “Get out!” “We all have implanted recorders taking automatic note of everything that happens in our lives.” “Shut up!”) I wasn’t convinced by many of the characteristics of the seemingly-monolithic Neanderthal society (High tech without an industrial base? Without density of population?), and neither were some of the characters: What’s more serious, though is that the objections are simply swatted aside as if they didn’t matter, or more likely to keep some stuff in reserve for the sequels.

Fans of Sawyer’s previous work will here see many of the author’s tics, from explicit Canadian content (virtually all of the novel takes place in Ontario, in one reality or another) to a fascination with legal mysteries, along with slams at Mike Harris and organized Skeptics. Sawyer’s usually double-shot of theology and matrimony aren’t to be found here, but there are hints that those may be forthcoming in the two other volumes. (Otherwise, the volume is satisfyingly self-contained for a first of three.)

One eeek-factor is worth mentioning, though: a disturbing rape plot sub-thread which ends up feeling exploitative despite all efforts to the contrary. But that just may be my own prejudices protesting, so pay no attention to this particular knee-jerk reaction.

Fortunately, Sawyer’s prose is as readable as ever. It’s not seamless (the strictly-utilitarian prose feels more convenient than elegant), but it work well at what it’s supposed to do: Tell a story. It’s just a shame that there isn’t much of a story to tell.

But I was entertained, and in the end that’s pretty much all I ask for. No, it’s not worthy of a Hugo, especially not given the competition in 2002. And if I wasn’t already preoccupied by other things, I’d probably vent about it and rail about the increased stupidity of Hugo voters. But you know what? At least Hominids is real, pure, indisputable science-fiction. And after two years of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman going home with the award, well, at least that’s a step up.

Iterations, Robert J. Sawyer

Quarry Press, 2002, 303 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 1-55082-295-0

Whenever possible, I try to preface reviews of authors I’ve met with a short but pointed disclaimer. In this case, the disclaimer might be more necessary than usual. I know Robert J. Sawyer, I’ve interviewed him, and I’ve met him at local conventions and SF bookstores. Chances are that he even remembers me, which sorts of ruins the whole author/reader chasm that’s one of the underlying assumptions of my reviews.

Do understand that while I can recognize several annoying deficiencies in Sawyer’s work, I really do -generally- like what he writes. Despite the repeated themes and characters, mechanistic writing techniques and occasional cookie-cutter plotting, Sawyer strikes me as a professional’s professional, a career-minded writer who happens to understand and love the genre like few others. I could quibble endlessly about the repetitive and unoriginal nature of some of his books, but keep in mind that I’d do so even as I own most of his books in first edition, usually in hardcover.

Buying Iterations, his first short story collection, was a must. But enjoying it, well, that was another matter. Some writers are best suited to short story lengths. Others thrive in the extra space allowed in a novel. Sawyer definitely falls in the second category, and Iterations demonstrates it.

The principal problem is Sawyer’s quasi-mechanical approach to writing. In a novel, this works well given that the characters, ideas and overall narrative drive can sustain our attention even though the writing doesn’t. At the very least, one can say that the writing doesn’t interfere with our reading. But things don’t work like that in a short story, where the strings of mechanical writing are too obvious. While I wasn’t overly bothered by this, I’m usually tone-deaf to this kind of stylistic issues, and yet I noticed it in the course of the book.

Okay, this being out of the way, on to the blow-by-blow account: The book begins with the strong “The Hand You’re Dealt”, a formulaic but interesting murder-mystery set against a libertarian background. Sawyer loves mysteries and you can feel the fun he’s having doing a hybrid story. Other standout stories in the volume include the title-story “Iteration” (despite a horrid “I Wish” plot device), the whimsical “Lost in the Mail”, “Just Like Old Times”, and the closing story “On The Shoulders of Giants”. I could “but…” most of these stories, but they’re the best the volume has to offer.

There are more “eh?” stories whose point seems too lame to discuss. “The Peking Man” reads as the first chapter of a longer novel; all setup, no resolution. “The Blue Planet” is one of the most useless short stories I’ve ever read, even on a second read. It might have been best-written with an explicitly humorous story, but Sawyer’s track record as a writer of droll stories isn’t particularly better: “The Contest” will have you looking for a punchline, and that’s an impression shared by a few of the other stories in the volume, as readers collectively ask “Is that it?” There are quite a few duds here; not disasters, but stories that never build up to something interesting. “Where the Heart Is” strikes me as a perfect example of a short story about three times as long as it should be, a story driven mostly by the obvious authorial manipulation of a protagonist who should know better.

Again, please remember that all of the above comments are coming from a tone-deaf Hard-SF fan who does actually like Sawyer’s fiction. I’m so certain that your mileage will vary that I actually hesitate to recommend the book to you even though I found it, overall, worth my while.

Sawyer writes on page 156 that “since 1992, I haven’t written any short fiction without a specific commission; I just don’t seem to find the time for short work otherwise.” You may infer what you want from that statement, but I think that it illuminates the rest of the book.

Calculating God, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2000, 334 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86713-1

The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest for issues related to religion and science. Mostly fuelled by the evolution versus creationism debate, these questions more or less seek to explore the relationship between faith and proof, or the place of religion in a secular western civilization obviously ruled by the objective standards of science.

Few authors have dealt with this theme as often as Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer. His novels have often featured, either as vignettes, sequences or significant subplots, faith issues. (With an appropriateness that is often disputable.) With Calculating God, his twelfth book in eleven years, Sawyer finally devotes a whole book to the issue and, hopefully, gets it out of his system for some time.

It’s a measure of how theme-oriented Calculating God is that the thin plot begins like what may sound like a really bad joke: See, this alien lands at the Royal Ontario Museum and asks to see a paleontologist… Fortunately, things get more serious shortly after that, as it becomes apparent that the alien is there to investigate human studies of the archaeological record. Seems that the aliens, themselves believers, have noticed a troubling pattern in extinction events, and they want us to confirm it… which we do with our own extinction events.

Sawyer cheats and stacks the deck in his faith-vs-science debate by positing an alien Theory of Everything that denies the luxury of the anthropic principle. (ie; the “isn’t it infinitely improbable that we’re here?” creationist argument is usually answered by the “we’re here to see it, otherwise no one would care”.) What if, in other words, we had increasingly convincing proof of the existence of God?

Make no mistake; this polite, reserved, even restrained novel is supposed to make you think! It covers a vivid intellectual argument, presented rigorously and treated fairly. (How Canadian!) Don’t assume, however, that this is pro-creationist propaganda: Sawyer knows his stuff, obviously can’t justify creationists and never questions the basic foundations of evolution. His argument runs deeper than that, going beyond the simple superficial debate created by creationism.

In a speech delivered to the First Canadian Conference on Science and SF in Ottawa in October 2000, Sawyer argued that the new role of SF would be to promote rationalism, and Calculating God is a model for this type of new SF. While pro-God, Sawyer’s novel isn’t exactly pro-religion, but it is in fact pro-faith. If that’s not middle-ground enough to make you think, what is?

In strict fictional terms, there isn’t much to see in Calculating God. The plot is an excuse to bring forth a debate and assorted arguments. The protagonist the same middle-aged scientist that has starred in the majority of Sawyer’s novels. The writing is limpid but not exceptionally polished. The introduction of stock terrorist caricatures near the end detracts from the novel’s intellectual suspense. The conclusion goes nowhere, aiming at a transcendental conclusion but ending as a muddled, perfunctory end.

But literary worth is not the point. The point is the debate, the respectful exploration of the boundaries between faith and logic. As a non-believer (most of the time), I wasn’t really convinced by Calculating God, but I wasn’t insulted or disappointed. That’s an unusually meritorious achievement for Sawyer, to manage to please and respect both believers and atheist. (One could make an argument that it took a Canadian to be able to be so vigorously non-threatening, but I’ll refrain for the moment.) In any case, Calculating God is a keeper, another good example of modern SF that faithfully (ho-ho) upholds the golden intellectual standards of the genre.

Flashforward, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 1999, 319 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86712-3

One might wonder at the reason behind Robert J. Sawyer’s current success. Certainly, the author’s tireless auto-promotion has something to do with it. The regularity with which he publishes is another, at roughly a novel per year since 1990. His direct, journalistic prose is easy to read. His professionalism is obvious; he always deliver the goods with each successive book.

In other words, Robert J. Sawyer truly understands and produces what the average reader demands of SF: Easy, captivating yarns built around the solid core of an idea and wrapped in professional characters and plotting. His latest, Flashforward, is almost a textbook example of how to write a fair contemporary SF novel.

The premise is a good one: Following a high-energy physics experiment at CERN, everyone on the planet experiences two subjective minutes of a future twenty years away while their “objective” bodies lose consciousness. The immediate repercussions are horrendous: Thousands of people are injured or killed as they blank out in dangerous situations. But the long-term effects are even more significant as everyone correlate their individual visions and find out that they all refer to the same future…

Fantasy concept, sure, but Sawyer manages to make us willingly suspend our disbelief. In the process, he raises concepts of free-will, of fate, of guilt, of the non-eternal duration of love. Sawyer aficionados won’t be surprised to see Sawyer’s usual matrimony/theology themes weaved in all of this. Heady stuff, but adequately presented in digestible bites.

The concept leads itself to some delicious situations: A man investigating his own upcoming murder, a marrying couple knowing they won’t be together twenty years later, a writer with a glimpse in his non-upcoming-greatness, a president-to-be harassed with congratulation calls, a future-couple uncomfortably meeting for the first time… Flashforward really benefits from these touches of irony, which compensate for the thin -but well-handled- characters.

There are a few flaws, like the dubious “everyone-asleep-was-dreaming” assumption (hasn’t Sawyer heard of deep sleep?). The ending is a bit rushed, with the typical Sawyer last-chapter paradigm leap. As usual, Sawyer’s ideas exceed his executive capacity -intentionally?-, and hard-core SF readers can’t be faulted for take the author to task for being a bit pedestrian. But most readers will love it.

Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say about Flashforward. Fans will like it, with most agreeing that it’s one of his best books yet. It does wraps up a bit easily and could benefit from less conventional writing, but it’s hard to fault such an easily-readable novel (don’t bother with bookmarks) for being too accessible. As usual, a sure choice for the major awards.

Tesseracts^6, Ed. Robert J. Sawyer & Carolyn Clink

Tesseracts, 1997, 297 pages, C$8.95 mmpb, ISBN 1-895836-32-8

Next step in my Aurora-nominee reading program this year: The sixth Tesseracts anthology of Canadian Speculative Fiction. A tradition has been established that each successive Tesseracts volume has a different set of co-editors. This year, the husband-and-wife team of Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink are serving their tour of duty at the forefront of what has become Canada’s most celebrated SF anthology series.

They say that an anthology is well-served by great stories in the opening and closing slots. In this regard, Tesseracts^6 succeeds admirably well. The opening fiction is by Eric Choi, a promising hard-SF author. “Divisions” tackles a very-hard-SF story upon an alternate history where Quebec secedes in 1981. The result is very satisfying. At the other end of the book, Robert Charles Wilson delivers the kind of fiction that has made his reputation with Protocols of Consumption, a character-based tale with adequate scientific content and a surprising amount of paranoia.

For the most part, you get what you expect from Tesseracts^6: The top authors keep their level of quality. I have yet to read a boring story from Andrew Weiner, as he proves with “Bootlegger”. James Alan Gardner is also a reliable author, and his “Love-in-Idleness” is one of the best stories of the volume. “What Goes Around” (Derryl Murphy) doesn’t quite lives up to its premise but remains a fun read. Yves Meynard enhances his reputation as a fantasy author with the curiously pleasing “Souvenirs”.

But there’s also some good material from newer names (at least to me): Catherine McLeod’s “Skulling Medusa” is an excellent hard-boiled action featuring a futuristic Private Eye. Douglas Smith’s “Spirit Dance” does interesting things with a love triangle, were-animals and the CSIS. (!) Additionally, Tesseracts^6 might make you realize that some of the latest novels seen in libraries are in fact from Canadian authors, like Scott Mackay (Outpost) and Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring).

Four of the stories are from French-Canadian authors, although it seems like two of them (Yves Meynard’s “Souvenirs” and Jean-Louis Trudel’s “Where Angels Fall”) were written directly in English. Annoyingly, like the previous Tesseracts anthologies, there is no mention of where the two translated stories (Sylvie Bérard’s “The Wall” and Élisabeth Vonarburg’s “The Sleeper in the Crystal”) originally appeared.

Due to poet Carolyn Clink’s co-editorship, this Tesseracts volume contains a fair amount of poetry. As a reader, I have seldom been attracted to this genre, and have to report that I have not been convinced by what I have seen here. Readers with different background can feel free to disagree.

On another register, I am happy to report that the interior typesetting is greatly improved over the past few Tesseract publications: The font is crisper (though still not heavy enough) and the margins are adequate. It’s a shame that the page header doesn’t indicate each story, though. The curiously unfamiliar paperback format (halfway between mass-market and trade paperbacks) takes a while to get used to. Unfortunately, the cover illustration is one of the worst I have seen in recent memory. It’s probable that the awful colour balance and the amateurish collage of elements will keep this book away from a few prospective readers. An unfortunate change from the beautiful cover of the previous volume.

Tesseracts^6 proves, if it was still left to be proven, that Canadian SF is strong enough not only to be fill a volume of good stories, but to do so at a yearly rate of publication and with different sets of editors. It also provides good reading… so what more is there to say? Bring on the next volume!

Factoring Humanity, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 1998, 350 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86458-2

Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel, Factoring Humanity, is about a estranged couple. Heather Davis is a psychology teacher at the university of Toronto: She had devoted her career to the deciphering of an ongoing alien message. Kyle Davis is a computer scientist: He’s working on artificial intelligence and quantum computing. In the first chapter, the gulf between the separated couple widens as their daughter accuses Kyle of sexual abuse. During this family crisis, the extraterrestrial message stops and strange individuals begin to have more than a passive interest in Kyle’s research…

Good? Bad? It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Factoring Humanity confirms what most fans already know about Robert J. Sawyer’s fiction.

One: It’s unusually readable. Sawyer’s journalistic training has taught him to write concisely, which is a change from the over-padded SF&F trilogies that we almost take for granted. The prose style is compulsively readable, a combination of effective writing and intellectual suspense.

The pattern repeats itself with his latest novel. Don’t bother looking for a bookmark before reading Factoring Humanity: Chances are you won’t put it down before reading the last line. On one hand, it’s a wonderful reading experience to be absorbed so completely in a novel. On another hand, it’s disappointing to finish a pricey hardcover in a single afternoon.

Two: The Big Ideas are there. After tackling death and the soul (The Terminal Experiment), cosmology and immortality (Starplex), genetic destiny (Frameshift) and the legal ramifications of accusing an alien of murder (Illegal Alien), Sawyer takes on the matter of (collective) consciousness in Factoring Humanity. Add to that the trifles of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and extraterrestrial messages and we get a busy book.

Almost too busy. Even though the book’s already full of interesting themes, Sawyer still piles up more, with the effect that some of the subplots seem rushed. For instance, much more could have been done with Cheetah, the “Approximate Psychological Experiences” computer simulation which has a small part in Factoring Humanity: it could have been the subject of a story by itself. (Later on near the end, we almost expect Sawyer to link Cheetah’s thread with the “organic consciousness” issue… it doesn’t quite happen. And it’s difficult to be more explicit without spoilers.)

Three: A more forgiving ability to suspend disbelief is necessary. For all its virtues, Sawyer’s fiction is always somewhat suspicious in plotting. Coincidences, unlikely character relations, half-integrated plot elements are always there to help the plot advance, whether it makes natural sense or not. There always seems to be a few contrived situations here and there. (Witness, per example, the unusually high proportion of exotic genetic problems around the protagonist of Frameshift. Or the earthquake in Far-seer. Or the diary in End of an Era. Or…) Some of the character’s psychology is also slightly suspicious.

Factoring Humanity repeats this accumulation of unlikeliness by linking the discovery of another extraterrestrial message to Heather Davis’s ex-boyfriend, among other things. The novel also has the added disadvantage (?) of luring the reader with a hard-SF beginning, only to end with a distinctively metaphysical tone.

Four: Sawyer’s usual themes are there. Religion and matrimonial problems once again find their way here, which isn’t a surprise since most of Sawyer’s novels so far have included something like this. Philip K. Dick once said that the greatest failing of SF was its inability to deal with marriage. It seems that Sawyer is single-handedly proving Dick wrong.

Five: You will read it. Not only is Factoring Humanity a strong contender for next’s year’s awards, it also shows why Robert J. Sawyer is now the foremost SF writer in Canada today. Hugo, Nebula and Aurora alert!

The Quintaglio Trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer

Ace, 1992-1994, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Far-Seer (1992), Fossil Hunter (1993) and Foreigner (1994)

Funny animals, dinosaurs.

Funny in the sense that they can lend themselves to a multitude of interpretation; their image in the popular psyche includes things from Barney to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. You can have’em fluffy or bloodthirsty; there’s room for everything in-between. Even intelligent dinosaurs.

With the Quintaglio Trilogy, Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer sets out with big ambitions. He set sout to explore no less than the path to our modern Western scientific mindset by telling us a three-volume story about an alien race (said Quintaglios) gradually discovering the truths of the universe. In the few hundred pages composing the trilogy, they (we) will go from Galileo to space-flight. It’s a lot of stuff, but Sawyer manages it well.

The first book of the trilogy, Far-Seer, is simultaneously the most interesting and the most ludicrous book of the cycle. The narrative structure is familiar; a young protagonist goes on a voyage of discovery that will change him. (The rest of the world will follow) It’s a fine coming-of-age story. Some parts are breathlessly exciting. Unfortunately, this volume doesn’t unfold as much as it is unwrapped by the author. Like most Sawyer novels (although this one is worse than most), Far-Seer relies a lot on suspicious plotting and awfully convenient coincidences. Earthquakes, sudden deaths and leaps of logic happen when they are the most needed.

The other books are less classically definable, but also rely less of Amazing Authorial Plot Tricks. If the first volume is about Galileo, Fossil Hunter is about Darwin and Foreigner is about Freud. You’ll have to supply the ability to believe that all of this happens in less than a century. With protagonists mostly related to one another.

But reading the Quintaglio trilogy only for the story is a bit unfair. For one thing, the characterization is adequate and the style is the usually limpid prose that Sawyer has used with great success in his other novels. Like the author’s other novels, the Quintaglio books are readable in a single sitting, although you might want to make them last a bit further. Scientific details are exceedingly well-researched, which brings us to the biggest virtue of the Quintaglio trilogy: World-building.

The most amazing thing about the Quintaglio trilogy is the way everything holds well together. The world has an impact on the biology, which has an impact on the psychology, which has an impact on individuals… A lot of subtle and unsubtle details show us how the Quintaglio differ from us and how we can emphasize with them. (My favorite is an insult: “Eat Roots!” Pretty offensive statement for a carnivore…!) Despite dealing with beings closely related to our dinosaurs, Sawyer makes them as sympathetic and likable as human characters.

Careful readers of Sawyer’s work won’t be surprised to find that his usual themes of religion and marital problems find their way into the fabric of the Quintaglio trilogy. A concordance of the Quintaglio world is included at the end of the third volume. Very useful material, but contains spoilers so don’t peek ahead. The illustrations by Tom Kidd (Vol.1) and Bob Eggleton (Vol.2-3) are okay. This trilogy cries out for an omnibus edition.

A final comment; the third book’s emphasis on Freud might not go down well with a few readers overly unconvinced by Old Sigmund’s theories. It would be a mistake, however, to assume a one-to-one analogy with our human theories; the Quintaglio way of life is suitably different from ours, and we get the drift that Freud would have been vastly more successful (or at least, accurate) there than here. (In a bizarre coincidence, I read Foreigner while my elective psychology class was studying Freud. Talk about synchronicity!)

Illegal Alien, Robert J. Sawyer

Ace, 1997, 292 pages, C$30.95 hc, ISBN 0-441-00476-8

In interviews, Canadian Science-Fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has often stated his love for both SF and mysteries. He even said that he’d like to take the time to write a “straight” mystery—if the market would allow it. In Illegal Alien, Sawyer has fashioned a compulsively readable hybrid of the two genres that will undoubtedly entertain scores of readers.

In an industry where an author producing one book a year is considered prolific, Robert J. Sawyer managed to release two hardcover novels in the span of six months: June 1997 saw Frameshift (Hardcover from Tor) and Illegal Alien (Hardcover from Ace) arrived just in time for the Christmas’97 holidays. While publisher politics are reportedly responsible for this schedule, Sawyer fans suffered from an embarrassment of riches with the release of the author’s seventh and eighth novels.

These two novels also mark a change of style and direction for Sawyer: While his earlier End of An Era, Golden Fleece and more particularly Starplex represented the kind of old-fashioned, gloriously wondrous whiz-bang SF, his two latest books (and, to a lesser extent, his Nebula-winning The Terminal Experiment) are much more introspective in nature, reflecting (said Sawyer at Can-Con’97) the kind of SF he would now want to read.

Frameshift surprised a lot of readers -including this reviewer-, especially following the exceptional Starplex. Illegal Alien is closer to Sawyer’s previous novel, but still illustrates where Sawyer is now headed.

Plot-wise, Illegal Alien‘s premise is summed up in its title; shortly after first contact, a human is found, murdered. Forensics establish that the murder weapon is of alien origin. Before one can say “California has the death penalty, right?”, an alien suspect is arrested. This isn’t the OJ Simpson trial, and Illegal Alien takes great care to distance itself (and even illuminate) America’s favourite murder trial.

(Of course, things won’t stay that simple for long. Revealing more wouldn’t be ethical.)

This strong premise is, as usual, carried by a style that’s more descriptive than polished. This isn’t meant as a criticism: For one thing, Illegal Alien benefit from the same strong narrative drive that ensured the success of Sawyer’s first novels. Readable in a single afternoon, and even perhaps in a single sitting, the novel breezes along without stretches.

Sawyer obviously did his research regarding California’s judicial system, and it shows. Even such topics as jury selection reveal themselves to be tantalizingly fascinating. Sawyer’s law proves to be as exact as his science. The result is an air of authenticity that goes a long way toward grounding Sawyer’s aliens in the realistic framework.

Illegal Alien could conceivably be used to “convince” mystery readers to take a look at the SF genre, and vice-versa. While the novel begins and ends in SF mode, the remainder is as good a legal mystery as anything else this reviewer has read in the genre.

While Illegal Alien isn’t as brilliant (read: impressive, overwhelming, awe-inspiring) as Starplex or The Terminal Experiment, it is only fair to say that it’s a more balanced work. There is scant to dismiss and a lot to like here: As usual, Sawyer delivers a well-crafted piece of thoughtful entertainment that will only solidify his reputation. Illegal Alien is a recommended purchase in paperback, and a suitable gift in hardcover.