The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

I finished The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer last night just before going to bed. What a terrific book!

The book is about a near-future Toronto engineer who makes medical detection equipment. After witnessing an organ harvesting on a “brain dead” patient, he decides to use his equipment to see if he can come up with a better definition of legally “dead”. In doing so, he discovers that the last bit of brain activity appears to be some kind of coherent electric “form” leaving the brain through the temple–what comes to be called the “Soulwave”.

This book pushed all of my near-future science fiction buttons–artificial intelligence, computers, theology, experimental science–and wrapped it all in a murder mystery. I flew through the book, completing all 105,000 words in less than two days. One way I judge how well I like a book is by how hard it is to put down, and like most of Rob’s books, this one was tough to set aside. I had a number of meetings yesterday, and knowing people’s penchant for being late to meetings, I even managed to sneak in some reading while waiting for people to show up.

I don’t know how he does it, but Rob has a knack for drawing the reader instantly into the story and then racing through at what sometimes seems like breakneck speeds, all the while keeping the reader fascinated and entertained. As an American reader, the fact that his stories are typically set in Canada–Toronto specifically in The Terminal Experiment makes the setting all the more interesting. At the same time, the characters themselves are believable, real-life human beings. They are fallible, they make mistakes, bad decisions and we feel for them through the whole story. It was particularly difficult to watch the ebb and flow of the relationship between Peter Hobson and his wife throughout the story. Difficult because, we’ve all been there, or know someone who has; we know exactly what Peter is feeling.

Rob also has a way of making extrapolations about the near future that are so obvious and yet subtle. He is, perhaps, Robert Heinlein’s equal in this respect. He doesn’t tell you about all of these cool gadgets and gizmos. Instead, he includes them as though they are just an everyday part of society and that everyone knows what they are, no explanation required. It provides a much more natural feel for the setting of the story.

Rob is also very good at exploring all avenues of a premise and taking each to its natural conclusion, in this respect, his stories are like Isaac Asimov’s and The Terminal Experiment is no different. The book is an exploration of all of the possibilities of what makes life life, what makes a living person living and a dead person dead.

In another way, Rob is like Asimov: the clarity of his writing. His style is plain, clear, unadorned, and for the type of stories he tells, this is perfect. Mind you, this is not to say the writing is bad. Isaac Asimov used to say that writing clearly is just as hard as writing poetically. But the style does not get in the way of the story-telling and that is crucial.

The Terminal Experiment reminded me, in some ways, of Connie Willis’ Passage. This is phrased wrong. Rob’s book was written years before Connie’s, but I read Connie’s first, back in 2002. They deal in similar themes, exploring what it means to be alive and dead. While I found Connie’s book to be the more chilling of the two, I found Rob’s to be, overall, the more enjoyable read. I’d rate it 4 out of 5 stars.


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