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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *