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Only human

Novelist Robert J. Sawyer puts real scientists on the page

Gregg Linden 4 February 2007

Racing against time: well-drawn astronomers in Sawyer's latest effort

If this doesn’t sound like your father’s science fiction, it isn’t

What do a dying paleontologist, a divorced computer scientist, a widowed particle physicist and a geneticist with Huntington’s Disease have in common? They’re all products of the fertile brain and prolific pen of author Robert J. Sawyer. The award-winning Sawyer, whose novels (17 of them) are marketed as ‘hard science fiction’ in the U.S. but which often reach the mainstream bestseller lists in his native Canada, writes stories notable for realistic depictions of scientists.

Although his earlier work (the Quintaglio Ascension trilogy) might be a hard sell as lab lit (its protagonists are sentient dinosaurs!), Sawyer’s more recent, near-future, hard SF novels (Calculating God, Factoring Humanity, Hominids and Frameshift – the sources, respectively, of the above-named practitioners), feature cutting-edge science, big ideas, and scientists with human foibles.

Not that it always works. Despite an interesting premise, Frameshift is too densely plotted (a fatal genetic disorder, mind reading, Nazi hunting, the cloning of Neanderthal genes, a greedy insurance company using illegal DNA sampling to screen high-risk customers) as well as improbable and melodramatic. But at his best, as in the Nebula award-winning Terminal Experiment, where a neurobiologist creates a computer model of the human soul, then watches as it imbues a lifeless computer and plots a murder, Sawyer uses authentic science, practiced meticulously by flawed, realistic scientists, to ask interesting questions about human values, religion and science itself.

How does he pull it off? Though not a scientist himself, Sawyer is a tireless researcher, often spending months in preparation, interviewing scientists and reading voraciously to familiarize himself with the current scientific literature in the field about which he’s writing. As a result, his explications of scientific principles (often belittled as “infodumps” in SF writing circles) are thorough and accurate, yet manage to entertain. This is quite a trick, as any writer who’s tried it can attest. And though he’s occasionally chided for pedestrian prose, Sawyer’s characterizations are strong, particularly for science fiction. His scientists and their faults (perhaps because of their faults), feel like real people.

Calculating God’s Tom Jericho, dying of cancer, chooses between spending his remaining months with his family, or understanding God. In Factoring Humanity, two divorced scientists struggle not only to fathom mind-bending new science, but also with their mistrust of each other and their shared love for their daughter. And in the wonderful, Hugo award-winning Hominids, the first book of a trilogy, a molecular anthropologist must overcome her own mistrust of men as she forges a relationship with another scientist that seems doomed by prejudice and cultural differences.

If this doesn’t sound like your father’s science fiction, it isn’t. Sawyer’s novels are thought-provoking, literate, erudite and often thrilling. They manage to appeal to both the heart and the mind. Those are considerable accomplishments, and not something your average adolescent-aimed space opera or even Crichton-esque thriller can hope to achieve. This is lab lit writ large and executed with style. And I haven’t mentioned (because I haven’t yet read) Sawyer’s most recent work. While not lab lit so much as thoughtful, near-future SF, Mindscan explores the philosophy of self and personality using a signature Sawyerism: brilliant extrapolation of the ethical implications of cutting-edge science. Sawyer’s most recent novel, Rollback returns to his lab lit roots. It’s touted as an exploration (by an elderly scientist) of the moral choices afforded by advanced technology.

I can’t wait.