The Terminal Experiment

Robert J. Sawyer
The Terminal Experiment Cover



Always with that contrived, ripped-from-the-headlines-plugged-into-a-thriller-type feel and the distracting sense that his characters are just cameos of folks he met while researching his book, but you would think that after decades (and even centuries) of SF exploring the ramifications of AI and the afterlife, Sawyer would come up with something more insightful than just murderous AIs and an imaginary proof of soul-life resulting from a few taps on the keyboard. Another example of hailed Hard sci-fi that relies on arbitrary fantasy tools and measurements that are just as fuzzy as any magic spell. As a nineties novel, it can be valued for its projections of the current form of the digital age, though most interesting is the optimistic ending for his highly flawed protagonist. Given Sawyer's commercial success and formulaic approach, it's hard not to wonder if he and his readers have overlooked the fact of the protagonist's abominable, sociopathic behavior. But surely... what I wrote on Goodreads, where I usually record my immediate post-read impressions. I guess I was feeling grumpy that night.

But it's a healthy exercise to consider other viewpoints, especially when I'm too lazy and disinterested to interrogate the novel myself. To shut oneself off from what is still a viable and prevalent form of SF expression: the stodgy Hard SF thriller -- no matter how didactic and superficial and recycled it may seem to me -- is to miss out on the big SF picture, which is why I'm still okay with reading other people's favorites, even when the cool thing is to absorb oneself in comfortable genre enclaves. Still, I've read enough of Robert Sawyer's novels to find myself in automatic dismissal mode, which isn't fair to him, and it definitely isn't fair to me, who is bored right now with science fiction techno-fantasy. But I need an angle!

So I am grateful that the British Science Fiction Association's summer 2015 edition of Vector includes an essay by C. Patel of Lancaster University, which uses The Terminal Experiment (originally serialized in Analog as "Hobson's Choice," a title I would love to despise, but look at my own title here and then tell me to shut up) to examine another insight into Sawyer's novels in "Breaking Out of Eden: Science Fiction as a New Mythology in Robert J. Sawyer's Writings." Science Fiction as a New Mythology (SFaaNM, let's call it) is not a new theory, nor is it something I'm very comfortable with adopting, but it's a different lens to examine Sawyer's work when I feel like I've pretty much got his process pegged. Unfortunately, like much of recent science fiction scholarship I've read (and, let's get real, other kinds of academic scholarship), Patel simply recapitulates old ideas using new(er)(ish) books, eagerly fitting Sawyer's work onto the bookshelf that is SFaaNM, and not even neatly, at that.

Patel knows that SFaaNM is not a new notion and spends the first chunk of the essay in lit review mode, eventually boiling down the components of mythology to what Patel considers "That basic question, 'what is it to be human?'" With that question in mind, it's reasonable that Patel would consider science fiction about artificial intelligence an informative angle to approach 'That basic question,' although I can't help but wonder why Robert Sawyer's novels, which are so recent, so dependent on prior works, and so superficial, deserve this kind of analysis. Lacking even a nod to Asimov, Dick, or Gibson (which alone would make for shaky generalizations about the nature of SF's exploration of humanity anyway) inhibits Patel's generalizations about SFaaNM via the characterization of artificial intelligence. Instead, all we learn by the end of the essay is that "Robert J. Sawyer demonstrates a belief that science and religion are interconnected." That's nice for RJS, and perhaps RJS fans, but it tells us nothing about "That basic question," or even how science fiction in general can behave as mythology to answer it.

Like the annoying reader I am, I was hoping for a more insightful conclusion and am disappointed that it didn't go my way. Bad reader! (which is the name of my next blog and no you can't have it.)

Part of the issue is that Patel parks the conclusion too far away from the most intriguing and relevant content of the article. Through a series of quotes from a variety of SF nonfiction courses, the article touches on the idea of humanity being recast as God or gods in science fiction. Humans as dieties -- omnipotent, unpredictable, dangerous, merciful -- is not a new idea, but it's applicable to the premise of The Terminal Experiment, it can best explain the novel's perceived flaws (though Patel see none as far as I can tell), and can potentially be applied to much of the Hard SF field.

In fact, I would go one further (and someone has probably done this already) and reframe this idea not as "humans as dieties," but "individual as diety." For, in this kind of science fiction, it is always one man to save/destroy (often both, often vice versa) us all.

In The Terminal Experiment, Dr. Peter Hobson and his friend Dr. Sarkar Muhammad employ a variety of computer hocus pocus to scan and copy Hobson's brain onto a computer. Each copy receives different treatment, again through a variety of computer hocus pocus, keeping one copy intact as the control group, while eliminating biological function in one, and mortality in another. Naturally, the copies escape to the internet and one of them goes on a murderous spree against Hobson's enemies, but Hobson can't decide which copy is the murderer. In another we-know-it's-going-to-be-related-eventually arc, Hobson, with his own technological hocus pocus, invents equipment to detect and measure the soul, what he terms "the soulwave."

Throughout the Vector article, Patel lobs several unexamined assumptions about the novel -- and humanity in general -- particularly with regard to death, morality, and the soul. At one point, Patel states unequivocally and without evidence, "Death, or mortality, is often the only measure of humanness," which landed a great big "What?" in the margins of my copy. (I suspect this statement stems from a tunnel vision comparison with AI entities, which is still too simple and flimsy considering Megatext context, but the greater real world context is also ignored in that statement: even mechanical things die.) Additionally, Patel cites a similarly unexamined passage as evidence, one in which the control AI explains why it murdered Hobson's enemies, when Hobson himself did not:

You have to worry about the consequences of your actions. Not just legally, but morally. You were brought up in a world that says there is a higher arbiter of morality, and that you will be judged. ...[N]o matter how much you hated him, you would not kill him. The potential cost is too high; you have an immortal soul, and that at least suggests the possibility of damnation. But I have no soul. I will never be judged.

Lots of assumptions about souls here that you have to buy before you can get on that train, but I won't get into that. The truth is, Hobson-the-human is a sociopath, and Sawyer (intentionally or not, though I'm leaning toward the intentional at this moment in time) characterizes him as such. There are other heightened idiosyncrasies in the text to support this: he is selfish, arrogant, disproportionately critical of others while being socially insecure, and a classic passive misogynist. Also, and this is kind of important, he hates some people enough to want to kill them, which, if anyone needs to be reminded, wanting to kill people is sociopathic. The atheist Hobson does not kill, but not because the presence of a soul morally precludes him from it, but because it would be inconvenient, it would mess up his life, and he would get caught. Hobson's sense of self-preservation is stronger than his sense of morality (or soul-threatening eternal doom) indicated by his eagerness to hide his knowledge of the actual killer from the police, in order to prevent his own arrest, thus allowing the AI killer to roam free and kill again (which it does).

Patel, for some reason, interprets Hobson's actions as evidence of guilt: guilt for replacing God to become the Creator of beings, and guilt that the AI version most like him is the actual murderer. The final leg of that reasoning is not followed through, however: this is a selfish type of guilt. Hobson doesn't actually feel guilty for the deaths themselves.

Moreover, what Patel interprets as guilt, I interpret as moral and lifestyle self-preservation. A person ridden with guilt would not prolong the AIs' existences and protect them from law enforcement. Hobson's actions are only to keep himself out of jail (and to see what more his AI doppelgangers can do).

(...and this is where I feel weird writing this essay because splitting hairs over the behaviors of a fake person is just a little too wearisome and pointless for me. So back to the Big Idea!)

If Patel had intended to demonstrate that Sawyer's work is modern day mythology because it's all based on bullshit, then yes, I can get behind that idea. The mechanics of AI software, the alterations, the equipment used to identify and measure the "soul wave" is all textual hocus pocus. Instead, Patel's main aim is to identify a gentle, hole-in-the-sheet chaste marriage between religion and science in Sawyer's work, without really interrogating what this means in the greater scheme of things, in particular what it means when individuals are recast as deities in modern SF, despite relying on a considerable number of quotes that point in this direction. More importantly, this kind of conclusion means that SFaaNM is a poor kind of substitute for a cultural literature, doing nothing to improve upon archaic, mystical ideas which are moralized to control the populace while the powerful (nerds) play and shoot lightning bolts from the sky.

But what is Sawyer's purpose of this novel? Is it, as many fans and Goodreads reviewers see it, simply an exercise of scientific ethics? An imagining of the consequences of controversial scientific advancements in a rational and liberal, but still faith-based, society? If so, is this sociopathic rendering of Hobson (and Dr. Sarkar -- let us not forget the eager accomplice) a warning of nerddoomdeification from the usually science-positive Sawyer? And ultimately, does this warning even matter if, in the end, like any selfish mythological god, Hobson can walk away unscathed after the damage he has caused, influenced, and prolonged?

Mary Shelley would call this a horror novel.

Oh, and did I mention? Nebula winner.