The Terminal Experiment

by Robert J. Sawyer

Cover image

Publisher: Eos
Copyright: May 1995
Printing: April 2002
ISBN: 0-06-105310-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 333

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I started off on a bad foot with Sawyer with Hominids, the Hugo winner for 2003 but a book that I disliked on several fronts. I was hoping that some of this was just disagreement with the material and that, given his popularity, I'd find some of Sawyer's other work more appealing. The Terminal Experiment is a murder mystery crossed with AIs and uploaded personalities and won the Nebula award in 1995, both of which were good signs.

I liked this one even less. I do not understand what people see in Sawyer that's so compelling he keeps winning awards.

First, even apart from the plot and background, this book is painful to read on a sentence by sentence level. The sentences clunk and clatter, stating the obvious, telling a story without emotion or only with faked dramatic emotion, and lacking visual description or stylistic grace.

Peter's tone was imploring. "Sandra, tell them you want me to stay!" He hated himself for what he said next, but he couldn't think of anything more effective: "If you don't, you'll die having never solved the crimes."

The whole book reads like that, including the TV cliff-hanger drama. It's also riddled with cliches, to the point where the characters themselves complain at several points about how bad their dialogue is. Reading it gave me the unpleasant skimming sensation I get from reading a book written in stock, received phrases. I was mentally filling in the obvious end of each sentence before reading it, which destroys the pacing and the dramatic tension and makes the texture of the book feel flimsy.

Sawyer also does himself no favors by writing nearly the whole book in flashback, a trick that others (most notably Samuel Delany in About Writing) have criticized more effectively than I could. It's a cheap dramatic trick that tries to steal a hook from the middle of the book to forgive a boring start rather than making the start of the plot truly interesting.

This is, at heart, a thriller, so if one wanted to be generous one could forgive the language as following the accepted mode for mass-market thrillers. It could have been a speculative novel about how the world would react if it could be scientifically proven that people had souls, and that does exist as a subtext, but the flashback start and AI murder mystery knock it firmly out of that territory. However, if it's going to get a thriller exception for its language, it needs to make up for it with either a devious plot or with compelling characters.

The plot fails on multiple levels. First, it's obvious for most of the book which of the three uploaded and differently altered personalities committed the murder. In a pure mystery, there's a fine balance between giving sufficient clues for the reader to work the mystery along with the detective and giving away the mystery too soon. In the thriller, where suspense comes from the action as much as the mystery, one can err farther on the side of not giving the reader enough information. But to have the answer be obvious from early on robs the book of narrative tension and makes the characters look dense.

Second, the background is so laughably bad as to destroy all my suspension of disbelief or willingness to care about the plot. This has to be one of the worst-researched SF novels about AI and computers I've ever read. Even for a 1995 publication date, having uploaded personalities read "HELP" (sic.) to learn how to access the Internet makes me cringe. So does computer programs magically being able to move themselves around inside a secure system (putting aside the book's handwaving about "movement") because the protagonist from which they were cloned would know how to locate them in the system. Add badly constructed syntax for doing global search and replace on files to hide them from police searches, total lack of comprehension of how computer viruses work (while using them as a major plot element), magical cyberpunk technology letting programs travel through the Internet without regard to architecture, constant confusion between hardware and software systems, and an endless stream of nonsensical technobabble and you may understand why I wanted to throw it against a wall on multiple occasions.

That's not the worse, though. That honor goes to the characters.

I was particularly fond of the five-minute therapy session, where the completely passive wife of the protagonist is diagnosed with poor self-esteem due to lack of love from her father in an orgy of conclusion-jumping and dialogue taken from bad TV shows. But really, there's so much to choose from. For another example, there's the marital affair with a wonderfully sexist fallout: the flawless, honest husband is devastated by his wife's betrayal after he spends six months growsing about how is wife isn't dressing properly for his personal enjoyment and complaining about how he's not getting any sex. The wife, being subject to this degree of objectification, is portrayed as entirely at fault. She slept with the most obviously disgusting and obnoxious character in the book because her husband was too good for her and she was looking for someone to abuse her. (This is all explicitly established in the aforementioned five-minute therapy session, in case you thought the reader might be expected to read between the lines or something.) Oh, and just in case you thought there might be some redeeming quality in the guy she sleeps with, we get a viewpoint scene with him just to establish how horrible he is.

So, we have as hero the guy who thinks his wife owes him sex and should dress up for him, and an inexplicable affair. But at least this gets all sorted out in instant therapy, right? Well, the wife seems to gain something from it (although she remains completely passive and submissive for the whole book), but Peter, the viewpoint character, spends the rest of the book moping about how much this affair has hurt him, how he can't trust, how much he was damaged by this, and how horribly unfair it was. There are few characters in fiction I would have more enjoyed running over with a bus, and the narrator appears to be entirely on his side. His wife's friends are even portrayed as over-the-top obnoxious and without redeeming qualities, tying into this fantasy that the whole situation is due to his wife's poor choices and self-destructive behavior. As far as I'm concerned, the most self-destructive thing she does is stay with this idiot; that idea could have been explored with a salvagable result, but instead the entire book is set up to make clear that's the wrong option.

Oh, and to top it all off, the book ends with a bizarre fixation on the transforming power of monogamy which would, if practiced universally, apparently result in world peace. Gah.

Hominids at least had a competent plot and I could see the appeal in its speculation and background. The only redeeming quality I can come up with for The Terminal Experiment is that the tension and final plot resolution has adequate pacing and fails to completely suck (as long as you ignore the computer technobabble), and the background news articles are neat. I hated the characters, didn't believe the plot, found the book painful to read at the sentence level, and finished it solely because I'm obsessed with reading all the Nebula winners. Unless you're bound and determined to do the same thing, I recommend reading something, anything, else.

Rating: 2 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-03-12

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21