Monday, August 4, 2008

Review - The Terminal Experiment

The Terminal Experiment
by Robert J. Sawyer
1995 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Welcome to the bottom of the barrel, the worst of the worst. The Terminal Experiment is easily the worst of the Nebula winning novels I have read. Unless The Yiddish Policemen's Union turns out to be one of those situations where everyone who loves literary fiction is raving over something from a high school creative writing course this is unlikely to change.

Let me get the plot recap out of the way quickly since this is going to be a doozy. In short a man having trouble with his wife makes three copies of his brain into a computer and modifies one to behave like its dead and in the afterlife and another to think like its immortal. One of the three (yes, the obvious one) goes on a killing spree. I'm skipping over quite a bit of stuff here since Sawyer dropped a lot of big ideas in the book and didn't really follow up on any of them.

The best thing I can say about this thing is that it is not as bad as Sawyer's worst book to win the Hugo award Hominids. On the other hand that is like saying the bubonic plague isn't as bad as the Ebola virus since it has a slightly lower mortality rate. The Terminal Experiment has the exact same problems as Hominids but isn't as egregiously stupid. It fails on levels of concept, plot, characterization, and prose and it does phenomenally poorly with all of them. Hominids was bad enough to make me suspect that Sawyer was completely incompetent as an author; The Terminal Experiment confirmed it.

And yet somehow this man who writes like Michael Crichton after a head injury has a following (not to compliment Michael Crichton). Obviously he's won two literary awards in the face of a large crowd of people who despise his work so somebody has to be willing to vote for him. I've encountered people who think that anything Sawyer writes is brilliant and run out to get his latest book. They say that Hominids is a daring book and The Terminal Experiment is a work of genius. It's an attitude so divorsed from reality that I suspect alternate universes may be the cause.

So here for educational purposes is...

Why Robery J. Sawyer is a Terrible Author (Using Examples from The Terminal Experiment)


A central problem with Sawyer's books is that he throws major concepts in front of the reader and doesn't consider the implications of them. Rather than follow consequences he follows a plot he's already determined even when they're contradictory. Since the consequences of the high concept ideas is at the heart of any speculative novel he undermines the foundation of the book.

At the beginning of The Terminal Experiment a company develops immortality. For just twenty million dollars they'll grant you an indefinite life span through the use of nanotechnology. This would cause a fundamental upheaval in society. There have been novels written about just this concept. Not The Terminal Experiment however where interest in living forever is so low that they have to sell it like a time share vacation. That's right: no one wants to live forever, the medical nanotechnology that puts the stuff in The Diamond Age to shame and could revolutionize everything is ignored, and they sell a $20 million dollar medical procedure through hotel seminars.

Then the main character discovers that when you die the last thing that occurs in your brain is an electrical impulse bounces around before ending near a thin part of the skull. Obviously this could be a "soul" but the evidence is very thin on that. Except for one part that is apparently in context supposed to be "satirical" no one ever questions if it is the soul. It just is and the novel proceeds full steam with that premise.

Which leads us to the computer simulations of the mind. The main character wants to know what he'd be like in the afterlife so he removes all mortal concerns from one of the simulations. While this might make for interesting examination it is far from the definitive view of life after death as Sawyer presents it. This is a direct example of what I'm talking about; the simulation can never be anything more than a mind that has been tampered with but Sawyer not recognizing the implications of his concepts says in the omniscient narration that it is exactly what the afterlife would be like.

The book does attempt to have a theme with the idea that temporal immortality and spiritual immortality are distinct concepts. That's fine. The problem is that to build this point Sawyer treats them as mutually exclusive prospects ignoring the fact that the laws of thermodynamics and entropy means that the people who choose temporal immortality get both while everyone else just gets one. So his thematic premise collapses like a house of cards.

As a final example there's a bit of philosophy for you. Are you aware that agnostics and atheists are inherently amoral sociopaths? According to Sawyer the threat of punishment must exist for an ethical system to carry any weight and the idea of eternal punishment through an afterlife is the only thing keeping humanity in check. That's a theist argument for the necessity of religion that has been torn down more times than I can count; it would take someone exceptionally ignorant to use it these days.

I'm only glossing over things, though. I didn't mention the fact that the device that lets you detect the soul is essentially a better, cheaper form of MRI and yet it is never used as anything other than a soul detector. Or the fact that an early chapter picks up the question of how to identify that an organ donor really is dead but then after working a full chapter to establish this debate completely abandons it. Or that computer networks function just like physical locations. The Terminal Experiment would be laughably bad in its concepts if it wasn't for the fact that it won the Nebula and so it just makes me want to cry.


Beyond the premises that the novel is built on (which are also the easiest things to tear apart) Sawyer is incapable of structuring a plot. He has the loose framework of one but events do not flow naturally from one to another. Events occur mainly because he's decided on the plot rather than justifying them within the story.

A perfect example is the series of murders that forms the actual story. Why does the AI murder people as a cover up when it would draw more attention rather than simple discrediting them as we know it can do? Sawyer gives his characters abilities which they never take advantage of mainly so the plot will advance. It's an idiot plot and that seems to be all that Sawyer is capable of writing.

In addition the first half of the novel consists almost entirely of set up. Not a development of a story; just events to drop into place so that when the story does start about half way through things are explained in explicit detail. Subtlety in motive or development has no place in a Sawyer novel as each turn must be spelled out in detail. Naturally many of these details don't make any sense.

And let's talk about that structure for a moment despite the fact that I touched on some of it in the concepts section. Chapter one gives us a character who enters the book late and explains the plot and then the book goes into flashback. This is a bad idea since a flashback that starts at the novel's beginning and ends before the climax damages the pacing of the book; the reader knows what is coming and it takes a very skilled author to twist those perceptions to something interesting. Then there's a chapter about organ donation and telling the dead from the just brain dead that could have been completely dropped without losing anything in the book; it doesn't give us anything on character, setting, or even concepts that are important later. It's a conflict that is established and abandoned (thinking on the fact Sawyer clearly learned about how organ donation works but nothing about the medical ethics involved it's probably for the best). There's a bit of character work and then a chapter about immortality where he spells out exactly how the immortality process works; in other words a chapter of exposition that doesn't make sense which is then forgotten about. Then there's a few chapters on the discovery of the "soul" for a third plot line which isn't developed. That's almost half the novel on things that aren't developed.


As you might guess based on the fact that events serve the predetermined plot rather than occurring organically the same thing applies to the characters. At best in Sawyer's work they're card board cut outs at worst they're personalityless ciphers. I'm not going to bother pointing out characters who could be defined by throwing darts at a cliche board to select their traits ("This guy is smart so I'll use longer sentences and three syllable words!"). Rather I have an example of what Sawyer thinks passes as characterization.

Early on in the novel the wife of the main character has told him that she has had an affair. Sawyer makes it very clear that she has low self esteem and daddy issues using some weak arm chair psychology. Sawyer has done everything but spell it out for his readers.

Then she goes to a counselor who within two pages of discussion spells it out for us. Sawyer literally has the character come out and provide a personality profile after they've talked for ten minutes. I've never encountered anything like it in published fiction and I don't mean that in a good way. It's the kind of thing that never comes up in writing lessons because it's so monumentally bad that it shouldn't even be considered.

And this is what Sawyer puts in his book as characterization. There's no hope for someone who writes like that since it demonstrates a fundamental lack of ability.


Finally Robert J. Sawyer is simply bad at forming his text. While an editor prevents things like spelling and grammar problems it lacks any depth or weight. His text reads like the popular novels along the lines of Clive Cussler or Michael Crichton only with even less ability. The prose is roughly on the fourth grade level; I've read YA books with a more rich vocabulary and complex sentence structure.

Rather notable is how Sawyer handles location descriptions. At the start of a scene he gives three sentences that describe the building and then one sentence about incongruous feature. It came across to me as though he read about this as a way to handle things and he uses it as the only way to develop setting.

So that is why in more words than you'd ever care to read is why Robert J. Sawyer is a terrible author and you should avoid him. I know that sometimes there are irrational reasons for liking something but there are too many good writers out there to defend him as a great one.