Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2012 Evelyn C. Leeper.


CALCULATING GOD by Robert J. Sawyer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/31/2003]

I'm in two book groups at our public library, the "original" group (which does all sorts of books), and the science fiction group. So almost every month I have a couple of books chosen for me by other people.

But this month I think I chose both of them. I know I chose Nikolai Gogol's DEAD SOULS, and I think I may have chosen Robert J. Sawyer's CALCULATING GOD, based on the group's request to do something recent, not too long, and that the library network had enough copies of. We all thought the book had a lot of ideas--maybe even more than a single book should hold. There was first contact with aliens who have proof that God exists, and immortality, and gun-wielding religious fanatics, and .... Actually, in my opinion, Sawyer should have left out the gun-wielding religious fanatics. I got the impression that he put them in because he felt the book needed some action instead of all the people and aliens just talking, but I didn't feel that way. I also thought that the details seemed somewhat artificially constructed so that the story could progress exactly as Sawyer wanted. For example, the aliens have enough technology so that Sawyer can justify why the government has to let the main character be the only contact with them, but not enough to solve his main problem. I liked all the philosophical discussions among the characters; I just wish there had been more of that.

To order Calculating God from amazon.com, click here.


FACTORING HUMANITY by Robert J. Sawyer (Tor, ISBN 0-312-86458-2, 1998, 350pp, hardback):

After the relative simplicity of his last book (Illegal Alien), Sawyer is back to his typical high-density story. A. E. Van Vogt claimed one show write by having a plot twist every 600 words; sometimes I think Sawyer has decided to throw in a new idea every few thousand words. I mean, I would think that deciphering the messages from our first alien contact and building a machine from their instructions with the functionality of the machine in Factoring Humanity would be enough without adding an entire sub-plot of artificial intelligence, suicides, accusations of abuse, and repressed/manufactured memories. Yes, they all tie together, but they make for a very busy novel. (And it's all the busier because Sawyer keeps his novels to a reasonable length. He doesn't take a thousand pages to cover all this--he does it in 350. Hang on to your hats.)

I'm sure I could work up an explanation of how this novel ties in with Sawyer's Canadian-ness and hence feelings of isolation, etc. (as Clute did with fellow Canadian Robert Charles Wilson and Darwinia), but I don't think that has anything to do with it. I do think that this does deal with isolation, but on the level that everyone feels when they are trying to communicate with or understand someone else.

To order Factoring Humanity from amazon.com, click here.


FRAMESHIFT by Robert J. Sawyer (Tor, ISBN 0-312-86325-X, 1997, 347pp, hardback):

The only problem with Robert J. Sawyer's novels is that they're busier than Shinjuku Station at rush hour. This one has a scientist working on the Human Genome Project, driven by the fact he has a fifty-fifty chance of developing Huntington's disease, mugged by neo-Nazis who may be connected to the Treblinka guard Ivan the Terrible. Meanwhile the scientist and his wife arrange to have a child by artificial insemination by donor, and this child may or may not inherit some of the wife's telepathic powers. There's also the question of whether the scientist can get health insurance and how the insurance companies try to get around legislation protecting people from being excluded due to genetic pre-dispositions toward disease.

All of these are important, and all of these are interesting, but all of these in a 347-page book makes for a lot of coincidences, strange connections, and red herrings (and one whopper that's all three).

I found the parts about the genetic testing to be the most relevant. (Of course, whether relevance is important is a subjective decision on the part of the reader.) I understand why the rest was there, at least in some sense, and Sawyer does connect it thematically. But as in The Terminal Experiment, I found myself wishing for more concentration on, and examination of, fewer topics.

This probably all sounds negative, but given that I plan on nominating Frameshift for the Hugo this year, perhaps I should say something positive. Okay: Robert J. Sawyer is the one of the two authors I first think of when I think about who the successors to Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and the other Golden Age authors in this "literature of ideas" are. (Greg Egan is the other.) So maybe my complaints about too many ideas seem a bit odd. If what you are looking for are ideas, and consequences of science, and all that sort of stuff, Sawyer is definitely high on my recommendation list.

To order Frameshift from amazon.com, click here.


HOMINIDS by Robert J. Sawyer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/02/2003]

I read another Hugo nominee, Robert J. Sawyer's HOMINIDS. This seemed a typical "Analog" story--a lot of emphasis on the science, but the actual story and characters were not very interesting. Part of the problem was that Sawyer seems to have designed his non-human society so that it's better in all sorts of ways, and without having religion. (Or maybe even because it doesn't have religion.) As a result, it reads a lot like Heinlein, and when the character talks about how well it works, I find myself thinking, "Well, yes, because Sawyer wrote it that way." Ultimately, in the context of the story, Sawyer is God, so it's rather disingenuous of him to construct an ideal fictional society and then say, "See, you don't need God."

To order Hominids from amazon.com, click here.


HUMANS by Robert J. Sawyer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/20/2004]

I read Robert J. Sawyer's HUMANS, the middle book of his "H" trilogy. (Well, what else would you call a series with books HOMINIDS, HUMANS, and HYBRIDS?) As usual, it seems to have every idea that occurred to Sawyer during its writing, although most of them are connected to the plot. (It seems obvious that Sawyer read Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL.)

[And later]: Last week, I referred to Robert Sawyer's new trilogy as his "H" trilogy, but Joe Karpierz points out that it is actually called "The Neanderthal Parallax".

To order Humans from amazon.com, click here.


HYBRIDS by Robert J. Sawyer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/26/2004]

I finished Robert J. Sawyer's "Neanderthal Parallax" series with his book HYBRIDS, and found that I thought it the weakest of the three, with Sawyer getting up on a soapbox about a lot of things: Americans' supposed love of guns, selective breeding, rape, male versus female psychology, and so on. There was also what might truly be called a deus ex machina about religion, the human brain, and the earth's magnetic field which all just happens to come to a climax at a few minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve in Times Square. This has always been my problem with Sawyer's books--he seems to put everything in, and doesn't spend enough time to develop a lot of it sufficiently. Somehow after working through three books, I was very dissatisfied with the resolution. (This, of course, is another problem with a multi-volume work. If at the end a reader doesn't like it, the reader is going to be even more annoyed at having spent so much time over such a long period to read it.)

To order Hybrids from amazon.com, click here.


"Identity Theft" by Robert J. Sawyer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/12/2006]

"Identity Theft" by Robert J. Sawyer (in DOWN THESE DARK SPACEWAYS, edited by Mike Resnick, ISBN 1-582-88164-2) is a hard-boiled science fiction mystery story in the vein of Isaac Asimov (on the SF end) and Raymond Chandler (on the hard-boiled end). (Sawyer has written at least one science fiction mystery story before, ILLEGAL ALIEN.) Alexander Lomax (the first-person narrator) is a detective on Mars hired to find the missing husband of his new client, both of whom are "transfers"--people whose consciousnesses have been transferred to mechanical bodies. As usual, Sawyer deals with a lot of issues: the nature of identity, consciousness and individuality, and of course the mystery itself. There do seem to be a couple of flaws in the reasoning, though, which detract from the story. (At one point Lomax says that a certain murder must have been committed, but later we discover that this is not true. Since his reasoning is part of what is given to the reader as explanation, it seems unfair for it to turn out to be false.)

To order Down These Dark Spaceways from amazon.com, click here.


ILLEGAL ALIEN by Robert J. Sawyer (Ace, ISBN 0-441-00476-8, 1997, 292pp, hardback):

Robert J. Sawyer has changed gears a bit for this novel. Rather than an analytic look at the existence of souls or the implications of genetic testing or a tour of the cosmos, he gives us a here a classic first contact situation that rapidly becomes a murder mystery. I found myself thinking of Isaac Asimov's science fiction mysteries, and this is a worthy successor in the genre.

We start with a spaceship that lands in the Atlantic Ocean. It turns out to be disabled and, after communication is established, arrangements are made for the Tosoks to exchange their advanced technology for our help in making repairs. All is going along splendidly until a human turns up dead, and it appears as though he was killed by a Tosok.

There is a lot of "courtroom procedural" here as well, and I can't help but wonder if this was inspired somewhat by the Simpson trial. (Sawyer has his characters make reference to it, which seems to support this.) On one hand, this gets a bit heavy-handed at times. On the other hand, I think this could be made into a very interesting movie. (Not that it would be, knowing movie-makers, but it could be, a la Witness for the Prosecution or even To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Illegal Alien is an enjoyable mystery, a bit lighter than Sawyer's recent works, but certainly worth a read.

To order Illegal Alien from amazon.com, click here.


ITERATIONS by Robert J. Sawyer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/24/2006]

ITERATIONS by Robert J. Sawyer (ISBN 0-88995-303-1) is a collection of some of Sawyer's short fiction. In fact, it is the only collection so far of his short fiction. Considering that he has been nominated for nine Hugos, you would think an American publisher would have been interested in doing a collection, so it could be that Sawyer felt that as Canada's most visible science fiction author, he should have this collection published in Canada. It includes his one Hugo-nominated short piece that was published before the collection came out, but also a few pieces less likely to have been seen by readers, such as one originally published in "The Globe and Mail" newspaper, and several from small press publications. Sawyer also wrote an introduction for each piece, although in most cases it is just the explanation of where it first appeared. I suspect that at some point a more comprehensive collection may be done of Sawyer's work, but until then, fans of his writing will want to seek this out. (It is available from amazon and other sellers in the United States.)

To order Iterations from amazon.com, click here.


ROLLBACK by Robert J. Sawyer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/04/2008]

ROLLBACK by Robert J. Sawyer (ISBN-13 978-0-765-31108-9, ISBN-10 0-765-31108-9) has two major problems. One, it has two assumptions of the "what if?" variety: we've made contact with aliens, and it is possible to "rollback" someone to the physiological age of twenty-five. Either one of these would be a reasonable basis for a book; both together seem like overkill. In fairness, this is a standard Sawyer technique, so it could just be me who finds this irksome. The other is that the ending depends on a massive coincidence--literally a one-in-a-thousand chance--to work out. (Actually, it is an even less-than-one-in-a- thousand chance, now that I think about it.)

And there are smaller problems as well. Sawyer manages to fit it his usual speech about how much better the Canadian health system (and educational system) is than the United States version(s). Even if it is true, I am not sure a statement to that effect needs to be in every novel he writes. And every once in a while there's something to bring you up short and destroy the sense of time and place. For example, though it's 2048, any sense of being in 2048 the reader might have is quickly stomped on when one character says the following: "Hell, I got an email today with a PDF attachment, and I thought, geez, I wonder if this is going to be worth reading, 'cause, you know, it's going to take, like ten whole seconds for the attachment to download and open." Which is less likely: that in 2048 we will still be receiving email with PDF attachments, or that if we were, it would take ten seconds to open them? (For that matter, how likely is it that both the Canadian and United States health systems will remain unchanged by then?)

Sawyer can't have it both ways. He can't write a novel set forty years in the future and have everything the same as now. Nor can he write a novel set in the near future and have the alien contact and rollback as he wants. (The alien contact is not faster than light, so he needs time after our reception of the first messages for our reply to travel out and their reply to travel back.)

Clearly, Sawyer has his fans (Joe Karpierz gave this a very positive review in the 05/04/07 issue of the MT VOID, and it did make the Hugo ballot), and Sawyer is usually the example of an "Analog"-style author on the Hugo ballot. But I have to say that this book will not be high among my choices for "Best Novel" on my ballot. [-ecl]

To order Rollback from amazon.com, click here.


"Shed Skin" by Robert J. Sawyer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/17/2005]

"Shed Skin" by Robert J. Sawyer ("Analog" 01-02/04) has a plot involving uploading a duplicate of oneself into a robot. This is very similar to several other notable stories over the past few years, and in particular this seems to be a response to David Brin's KILN PEOPLE (reviewed in the 04/25/03 issue of the MT VOID). I'm not sure how much new this adds to those stories, but at least it is centered on an idea.


TRIGGERS by Robert J. Sawyer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/16/2012]

TRIGGERS by Robert J. Sawyer (ISBN 978-1-937007-16-4) was the discussion book planned for our group this month. The meeting was re-scheduled, but since I had already read the book, I'll publish my comments now.

TRIGGERS has an intriguing premise, but one that does not bear much thinking about. In a hospital, a psychiatrist is using a machine to access and affect a patient's memories at the same time that the President of the United States is being operated on one floor below. Some sort of electromagnetic pulse affects the machine and produces a field in a sphere with a radius of sixteen feet. Everyone in that field is equally affected; everyone outside is untouched. Problem 1: Fields do not work this way.

The field links people's minds together, but not reciprocally or transitively. That is, A can access B's memories, and B can access C's, but B cannot access A's, nor can A access C's. Problem 2: There is no explanation for why it should work in this highly artificial way. And this connection is on-going; memories formed after the pulse are equally accessible. Problem 3: There is no explanation for this, either.

The FBI goes to a terrorism suspect's house where they find a computer screen with a Word document on it relating to the crime. What is the first thing they do? Well, one of them decides to find the directory the file is in, see if there is a backup copy there, and open the backup copy. Problem 4: The idea that the computer of a terrorist might have hidden detectors to wipe the disks (or melt the computer or even blow up the house) if someone tries to do something unauthorized, or that the last access time of a file might be important, does not seem to occur to them.

And without going into detail on the rest of the story, let me just say that I found the ending both unexplained and unsatisfactory.

To order Triggers from amazon.com, click here.


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