Book Review: The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

When I first heard about the premise of this Nebula Award-winning novel, that a scientist had found proof of the existence of the human soul, I was immediately intrigued.  However, the book had gone out of print, and I could not even find a used copy anywhere. Recently I discovered a new reprint addition in my search for award-winning science fiction and fantasy novels that I hadn’t yet read, and I ordered it right away.

The book is by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer.  He’s won a lot of awards, and also has one of the largest writing sites on the web, having got in on the ground floor almost twenty years ago and having been continually adding material ever since.

I want to emphasize from the start that “The Terminal Experiment” is an excellent novel.  It is fast paced, well plotted, and exciting.  And it left me profoundly disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong though.  I was not disappointed in the sense that I regretted having read it or felt that I had wasted my time.  No, not at all.  It’s a good book, an excellent book, for what it is, and that is a standard action-adventure murder mystery using a science fictional gadget as a plot device.  But I came into it expecting so much more.

The story concerns a doctor named Hobson who invents a device to monitor brain waves that is so subtle that it catches the signature of souls escaping bodies at the moment of death.  Naturally this has profound implications when it is made public.  Hobson is so intrigued by the concept of life after death that he gets a friend to scan his brain waves and creates three duplicates of himself:  one has no knowledge of death or aging, which supposedly simulates immortality, another has no knowledge of bodily processes and physical existence, which simulates life after death, and another is a control model with no modifications.  Okay, so far so good.  But then, rather than launch off into the deep and take a wild ride exploring all the metaphysical possibilities inherent in these fascinating premises, Sawyer opts for a very conventional murder mystery which uses the science fictional aspects of the plot but never goes very far with them.  The characters are all very rich, intelligent, upper class individuals; there is no hint of how such discoveries and experiments would affect the mass of humanity except in little news bits scattered throughout the book, seemingly thrown in, as it were, from the author’s notes as an afterthought.

As I say, I have no objection to the book.  It’s a good book, better than most.  My disappointment is that it could have been so much more.  It should have been much longer and encompassed so many more of the possibilities inherent in such an amazing discovery.  I found myself comparing this novel with Robert Heinlein’s classic “Stranger in a Strange Land”.  They both start with radical concepts or discoveries.  In “Stranger in a Strange Land”, a human is discovered on Mars, having been raised by Martians.  It turns out that as a result of his alien education he is possessed of certain extraordinary powers.  At first the government keeps him under wraps in a secure facility, but then a nurse helps him escape.  The beginning scenes are all fairly standard science fiction adventure plotting, as they escape and seek shelter with an eccentric writer.  But then, Heinlein goes wild with his subject matter and slings satirical lampoons right and left at politics, law, metaphysics, literature, theology, sexual mores, and so on.  It could have been a standard action-adventure, but Heinlein took full advantage of the material and went way beyond that.  This, I feel, is what Sawyer fails to do.

Of course I fully realize that Sawyer is not Heinlein.  Robert Heinlein is truly one of a kind.  I also realize that many people fault “Stranger in a Strange Land” for the very same reasons I am praising it.  So be it.  That’s the way it is.  “Stranger in a Strange Land” is one of my favorite novels ever and its discovery was a profound experience in my life at the time.  You can’t expect every novel to be like that.  A lot of books are just good books, entertaining and nothing more.  That’s what “The Terminal Experiment” is.  I recommend it as a very good, entertaining, fast-paced read.  I rue the fact that the material could theoretically have developed into much, much more than that.

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One Response to Book Review: The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

  1. ergeller57 says:

    While I am also a fan of Sawyer, your point describes the disappointment inherent in many of his books. He begins with a great premise (the existence of the soul, proof of god, the nature of time) and fails to deliver the depth promised by the exposition. Instead, he fashions formulaic genre novels with a carapace of science fiction. If you are interested in this topic, you may wish to consider “God Bless the Dead.”

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