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.