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The Terminal Experiment
by Robert J. Sawyer

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

There are a lot of books that feature an interesting, intriguing premise. The number that successfully develop that premise is lower. In spite of the fact it won a Nebula and was nominated for other awards, I feel The Terminal Experiment is not among the latter group. The major problem is Sawyer attempted too much, adding too many esoteric speculations, without resolving or adequately developing any of them. The conclusion gets close to the cyberpunk school, but everything that led up to that is rendered in unexciting, pedestrian prose and exposition. One of the few things I thought was right: the main character's name is Peter, because he is kind of a dick.

This originally appeared in serialized form in Analog under the title "Hobson's Choice," both a play on the main character's name, Peter Hobson, as well as the phrase thought to have originated with an English livery stable owner, who gave his customers the choice of taking the horse in the stall closest to the main door, or to take no horse at all. In other words, no choice. Peter Hobson is a bio-medical engineer intent on developing superior analyzing equipment, better and more comprehensive EEGs, EKGs, etc. In observing an operation of removing organs from a body for transplant, he questions the diagnosis that the person was actually dead when the operation began. He sets out to determine a more accurate assessment of brain death, and in mapping the brain activity of several people at the moment of their death, he observes an element of...something...that exits the brain at the final moment. What is later described as the "soul-wave" upends not only the medical establishment, but also the religious (and non-religious) communities, as well as the structure of society in general. Without any corroborating proof, most are convinced the discovery either affirms or denies whatever beliefs they already had about an afterlife. Others are content to brand Hobson a charlatan.

A side plot concerns another company developing technologies they claim will prolong human life spans, the first step towards immortality. That, and the notion humans have souls, of which Hobson was originally skeptical, leads him to consult with a friend whose company is working towards artificial intelligence. They map Peter's brain, and make three copies of the results, keeping one untouched as a control. For one of them, they delete the portions of consciousness they think will create a more spiritual being, with the other designed to think of itself as an immortal being. That raised a big red flag for me. I was willing to speculate about a part of our being that survived after bodily death, but the notion that every synapse and neural net of the brain could be adequately mapped and recorded strained credulity. On top of that, to think anyone could determine which of the millions of parts should be removed for any desired result was the proverbial straw. The plot devolves into a murder mystery, with the suspected culprit one of the virtual entities. By that time I didn't care about any of the characters, didn't care about any of their fates.

This is set in 2011, more than fifteen years after it was written. I have to assume Sawyer was computer savvy at that time, more than the general population at least, but as with many writers before him, he didn't envision computers and the internet much differently than they were in '95, and he failed to include cell phones, which were already in use at that time. The computer system used by those trying to create artificial intelligence didn't have much more hard-drive space than the one I'm using right now. I needed to read and review this as part of my project of covering all past Nebula and Hugo winners, but it was a struggle to get through when I have a lot of newer books that I think will be more enjoyable. I don't recommend it for anyone else, and I'll try to forget it myself.


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Robert J. Sawyer


Winner of:
Prix Aurora

Finalist for:

Available from