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The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsNebula Award winnerThis novel earned Robert J. Sawyer a Nebula, and while I quite enjoyed it, I have to wonder. A Nebula novel? Come now. Perhaps it’s a matter of taste. But when I think of Nebula-worthy SF, I think of sweeping stories that fill you with a dazzling sense of wonder, stories that withstand the test of the ages, that push the artistry of the genre forward. The Left Hand of Darkness. The Stars My Destination. You know. Something that goes just a cut above what one might term good escapism into, dare I say it, an elevated realm. Or perhaps I’m being a pretentious clod again. It takes quite a skillset, after all, to craft the kind of book that has a bestseller sensibility, that delivers precisely the lazy afternoon’s reading entertainment it promises. And yet, I don’t think I’m out of line believing that awards novels should succeed at that, while aiming higher at the same time.

The story involves medical researcher Peter Hobson. After gaining prominence and wealth inventing a hyper-sensitive EEG to determine the exact instant of a person’s death, Hobson one day pinpoints what comes to be called the “soulwave,” an electrical discharge that is seen exiting the dying patient’s skull through the temple. The discovery, as you might expect, galvanizes the world. When Hobson is cornered by a million journalists who want to know the impossible — is there in fact an afterlife and what is it like? — he comes up with an experiment that could render some answers.

Joining up with a colleague who has perfected computer technology that will accurately scan, down to the last axon, and replicate the human mind, Hobson uses his own brain as a guinea pig for a most unusual test. Three duplicates of his mind are created. One is totally unmodified, to be used as the control. In essence, it’s a perfect copy of Hobson, stored on a hard drive. The second copy, meant to simulate a hypothetical afterlife, has all memories of physical bodily existence erased. The third has all knowledge of aging and death erased, and is meant to simulate Hobson if he were in fact immortal. (Something which has also become a potential reality in Sawyer’s near-future through an insanely expensive nanotechnology process. In a stroke of satirical inspiration Sawyer has one of the first applicants be Geraldo Rivera.)

Now, the purpose of all this is simply to answer the question of what an afterlife might be like. Perfectly innocent, of course. But.... Yes, you’re way ahead of me. What we are dealing with are three complete human personalities now stored on a computer, all of which have access to the world via the Internet and other matrices. A couple of these digital clones have had elements erased which would, you might say, serve as inhibitors to some of a person’s more base personality traits. And if you have no fear of pain or retribution, you might do all sorts of things you would never, ever do in real life. For instance, let’s deal with this bastard who slept with your wife a few months ago...

Now, I disagree powerfully with the premise advanced by those of a religious or spiritual bent, that morality requires some kind of metaphysical source and that it is only through fear of recrimination and punishment that anyone would have any reason to be moral. A rational person understands that moral behavior is rational behavior, that reason and empathy are sufficient for kindness and compassion. There are more than sufficient pragmatic reasons to live a good life. However, it’s true that, for whatever reason (largely religious indoctrination, I’d say), most people don’t have a rational or pragmatic outlook on morality and may very well accept the notion that to be freed from fear of personal or “spiritual” retribution equals freedom from moral responsibility. So in that sense, what happens to Peter Hobson is believable dramatically.

The Terminal Experiment certainly has a sound bestseller set-up, the kind of high-concept pitch that would send a Hollywood mogul into dopamine overload. And Sawyer handles the “which simulation is the evil one?” mystery with appropriate gusto, knowing precisely which of his readers’ hot buttons to push at precisely what moment. Yes, as with much popular fiction, there’s an aspect of manipulation to all that, but Sawyer does it skillfully and not nearly as offensively as he does in a number of his other books. 

This is an enjoyable and recommended slice of entertainment. But that’s really all it is. An entertainment. And I guess I think that, to merit a Nebula, a book ought to be just a little bit more, to cross that fine line between a hit and a classic. Like a soul, it should ascend.