A Tunnel in the Sky

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by Robert J. Sawyer

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 17, 2009

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In spite of the fact that Sawyer has been writing for nearly thirty years, including multiple award winning and nominated books, Flashforward is the first of his novels that I have read. Published in 1999, it recounts an unexpected phenomenon that is apparently connected to an experiment conducted at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The LHC was still under construction when this book was written, and the first full experiment has still not been completed due to various problems with a couple of the superconducting magnets. It will likely be at least September 2009 before it resumes operation, but this novel's opening scenes are set in April 2009.

It is likely you have read of the speculation that the LHC might cause the creation of a mini-black hole, which some fear would eventually spell doom for the entire planet. Obviously I'm no physicist, and even though I have read quite a few books written to popularize this arcane science, I have no idea if any of the fears associated with particle accelerators are worth worrying about. The intent of the experiment in this book is to observe the formation of the Higgs boson, a particle speculated to be able to explain the origin of mass in the universe. Sawyer postulates a different scenario altogether, and to do so he introduces another unforseen outside influence on the experiment. I'll endeavor to be as spoiler free as possible in this review.

With very few exceptions, the best science fiction is not just about the technology described, but how that technology effects the people involved in the story. This novel is no exception. Don't let the fact that the majority of the characters are extremely intelligent scientists give you the idea that they can't also be sympathetic, or that their situations can't be relatable to the reader's own life. All of us share the same basic hopes, dreams and fears; to be accepted by one's family, friends and peers, to have someone to share those dreams with, to love and be loved in return, and perhaps most of all, to have confidence in a stability in your life's relationships.

But what if you had a glimpse into your own future, a future that apparently does not include your current life partner? What if you have no vision at all? Does that mean you are dead at that time in the future? To what lengths would you go to find out the answers to those questions? That is the quandary faced by the characters in this book, because at the exact time that the LHC experiment is initiated the entire world experiences a "flashforward" of consciousness some twenty-one years into the future. Unfortunately, during the two minutes, seventeen seconds that their consciousness is in the future, they are unconscious in the present.

Many accidents occur, from automobile and plane crashes to falls off ladders or down stairs. The death toll is in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Chaos ensues in both the economic and political realms, along with the aforementioned personal dilemmas. As the world struggles to understand the future visions, the scientists at CERN first remain mum on their suspected part in the phenomenon, but later reveal the possibility that they are responsible. Will the world let them attempt the experiment again in order to determine the truth?

The book does have some minor flaws. The one that struck me as most unlike anything else in the story is sort of an anti-climactic (and most definitely melodramatic) chase scene toward the end, and then it ventures into Olaf Stapledon-like territory (or at least Arthur C. Clarke-ian), but the majority is grounded in personal relationships and relatively understandable science.

As I said in the beginning, Sawyer has been writing for quite some time, with one Nebula (The Terminal Experiment, 1995) and one Hugo (Hominids, 2003) win for Best Novel, along with a combined nine other nominations for those awards. Hominids was previously reviewed here several years ago by SFExplorer. Flashforward was not nominated for any awards that I'm aware of, so I'm led to believe that his other books that were nominated will definitely be worth reading.

I have had this book for a while, along with a couple of others by Sawyer (including the previously reviewed Hominids), and yet I didn't get around to reading him until I saw reports that Flashfoward is the basis of a new series set to premiere in Fall 2009 on ABC. I've not searched out much info on that because I would like to watch it as unspoiled as possible, but the few things I have heard lead me to believe some things about the scenario will be changed, the main one being (if the article I read was correct) the time displacement in the show is only going to be six months. That makes sense in the context of a television series, especially since it would not require a lot of extensive aging makeup for the actors' future scenes, or casting older look-alikes for those scenes. I would also be willing to bet that the cause of the phenomenon will remain vague, possibly not even referencing the LHC, and I will be extremely surprised if the ending is anything like the book. In any case, I'm looking forward to the series, as well as to reading more from Sawyer.

UPDATE: The ABC series has come and gone, canceled after the first season of 22 episodes. It did eventually introduce the idea that the FF was caused by a particle accelerator experiment, but also veered into some very weird territory about a conspiriatorial group of people who were able to change the outcome of that experiment, which was definitely not in the book. The acting was so-so, the writing was generally weak, and with quite a few changes of show-runners and writing staff it seemed no one really knew how to develop the show. Don't let that dissuade you from reading the book.


Related Links:
SFWriter.com - Sawyer's official website
Sawyer's Bibliography Page at Fantastic Fiction


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Robert J. Sawyer


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