Robert J. Sawyer
The Terminal Experiment (1995)
Winner of the 1995 Nebula Award for Best Novel.
Reviewed: 1998-12-15

What do we have here? A bunch of interesting but ill-explored ideas bundled together in an all too predictable near-future murder mystery-thriller. Peter Hobson has his own well-going medical equipment company, a beautiful and loving wife, and he is generally happy. Little has changed in the world of 2011. There are numerous references to current people and trends to ensure that the book will be spectacularly dated within a decade or so. Advanced nanotech, while conspicuously absent otherwise, allows virtual immortality for those who can afford the bill. When Peter miraculously engineers a sophisticated device overnight that allows to detect a person's soul (sic) and its departure after death, the repercussions reverberate throughout the world, and my suspension of disbelief came to a crashing halt.

Peter's private life takes a turn for the worse when he learns that his beloved wife Cathy hasn't been faithful to him. The unfolding drama between Peter and Cathy is painfully trite, the dialog could come straight from an American TV soap opera. I don't know how often I've heard it all before. If this is intentional on the author's part I missed the point.

Meanwhile, Peter's friend Sarkar has conveniently progressed in his AI work to allow the uploading of a human mind into a computer. Without bothering to contemplate the legal or ethical ramifications, he already performs experiments that would recall Frankenstein if they were done in a biological context. Confronted with two diverging paths of immortality, the friends decide on an experiment: three simulacra of Peter are made. Spirit, from which everything related to the physical body is excised. This is to simulate life after death. Ambrotos, from which every fear of death is removed. This is to simulate physical immortality. And finally Control, an unchanged copy. How will they compare?

Well, one of the simulacra turns into a murderer, and before Peter and Sarkar quite catch on it is too late. The three AIs have escaped into the globe-spanning net, and the heat is on. The subsequent mystery story is straightforward and not very thrilling for a thriller. The end resolves the murder but hardly the questions raised, arguably it's a cop-out. The whole novel rests on the mythical notion of a soul.

The story is in fact stitched together quite well. Sawyer noticeably uses politically correct language, and the whole novel smacks of American liberalism (leftism). The "net", the future Internet, is integrated well, a fact adding to the plausibility of the novel's background, and not much of a surprise considering Sawyer's visible net presence. On the other hand, the future net is probably portrayed too much like today's version, there is no qualitative sign of a decade's worth of progress. Also, some of the technical tidbits mentioned are open to questioning. (Come on, "Drive F: of the Sun workstation"?)

What really puts me off is the Nebula Award The Terminal Experiment won. Many of the intriguing ideas presented here were already explored in much more depth in Greg Egan's earlier novel Permutation City. I can't help but feel angry that Sawyer was given honors for what Egan did much better. Of course this isn't the author's fault. Sometimes, life just ain't fair, especially for those who don't publish first in America.

An overrated book.

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Christian "naddy" Weisgerber <>