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Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsPhysicist Kyle Graves and psychologist Heather Davis are a married couple who do not have what you could call the ideal life. Their oldest daughter committed suicide some years before, they are currently in a trial separation, and now, as if anything could get worse, their remaining daughter turns up quite unexpectedly one night and accuses Kyle of sexually molesting her as a child. And you think you have problems!

This painful scenario is set up right at the beginning of Factoring Humanity, and indeed, Robert Sawyer seems to have his finger on the pulse of humanity better than most working hard SF writers. This is a story about people, first and foremost, much more reminiscent of the humanist SF of the ’80s delivered by fellows like Kim Stanley Robinson than it is of traditional hard SF in the Clarke or Niven vein. Sawyer hits close to home with deeply personal contemporary character issues. It’s the first SF novel I’ve read to deal this directly with the scandalous “false memory” movement in psychotherapy. Still, traditional hard SF junkies might disparage the fact that so much more attention is paid in this novel to hearts and souls than to nuts and bolts.

Heather Davis is one of several scientists who have been hard at work trying to decode messages that have been coming from Alpha Centauri. One day, the messages, which have been coming for so long with such clockwork reliability that people have begun taking them for granted, abruptly stop. Graves, meanwhile, has been working on developing a quantum computer, based upon the principles of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics (also the premise for Jim Hogan’s Paths to Otherwhere), which posits that there are a potentially endless number of alternate universes in which all or most possible existences take place. In other words, you're sitting here reading this web page right now, but perhaps there is a parallel universe somewhere in whose timeline you’re reading a different one, or none at all. Pure speculation, I’m thinking, but a rich vein of story ideas.

Anyway, it is through her estranged husband’s research that Heather finally hits upon the key to decoding the messages. And when she does, what she finally discovers about humanity will literally change things for all time.

I mentioned that Sawyer gives much more priority to humanist themes than scientific ones, and this works to the novel’s disadvantage in some areas. Without giving too much away, Heather finds out that she can use information gleaned from her decoding of the alien messages to learn once and for all if Kyle is or is not guilty of molestation. And this becomes the novel’s primary conflict: did he or didn’t he? But it isn’t a particularly powerful or suspenseful conflict, as we do know well in advance how that issue is going to be resolved. 

Sawyer also doesn’t exploit other, more obvious areas of conflict as well as he could. Graves is visited by a member of a sinister banking consortium, who want to buy him off of his quantum computing research because they fear for the future of encryption and security. But they never really loom as much of a threat. Along the same lines, once the nature of the alien discovery is revealed and Heather begins utilizing and learning from it, all sorts of possibilities occured to me as plot elements that really could have punched up the tale. Imagine how governments and the military would react to the threat posed by this thing! But Sawyer just doesn’t go there, preferring instead a “heal the family, and, while we’re at it, the human race” tale that both invites the risk of mawkishness and leaves too many missed storytelling opportunities in its wake. Sure, some of the ideas I mentioned might seem a little more formulaic, but they would have seriously ramped up the story’s dramatic tension, I think. (There are also minor things that bugged me a bit, too. Pop culture and TV show references that pepper the dialogue throughout just made me think Sawyer has been watching too much Quentin Tarantino.)

Still, the above criticisms notwithstanding, there is much to like in this novel. Sawyer has a talent for characterization. And the book is a brisk read, interesting from beginning to end even if I felt it could have been much more suspenseful and gripping. Though I don’t think Factoring Humanity merited its Hugo nomination, it’s a hell of a lot better than the one he actually did win a Hugo for, and worth factoring into your reading plans.