Review: The Terminal Experiment, by Robert J. Sawyer

>>Published: May 1995

>>Finally got around to it: May 2011

“But you know, Peter, this wouldn’t necessarily simulate true life-after-death. It’s life outside the physical body—but who knows if the soulwave carries with it any of our memories? Of course, if it doesn’t, then it’s not really a meaningful continuation of existence. Without our memories, our pasts, what we were, it wouldn’t be anything we’d recognize as a continuation of the same person.”

“I know,” said Peter. “But if the soul is anything like what people believe it to be like—just the mind, without the body—then this simulation, at least, would give us some idea of what that kind of soul would be like. Then I could have something intelligent to say the next time I get asked that ‘What’s life after death really like?’ question.”

***

Robert J. Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment attempts to solve the (potentially) unsolvable by using science to determine the existence of the soul. Dr. Peter Hobson has stumbled upon one of history’s great discoveries and, using a device of his own creation, has managed to capture a cohesive electrical field as it leaves a recently deceased human body. This radical proof of concept propels him to the front of the scientific community, and the world’s stage. Not content with his limited understanding of the electrical field that may or may not be the soul of the departed escaping to the afterlife—if there is such a thing—Hobson goes a step further and creates three digital, web-based simulacrums of his self: one to simulate life after death, one to experience immortality, and a control duplicate of his personality, minus the one and only thing that might differentiate a human from a machine—a soul.

It’s not long before the experiment escapes Hobson’s control and one of the simulacrums dabbles in murder most self-serving. From this point forward, the book carries on with the steady pace of a thriller, each chapter bleeding seamlessly into the next.

As a thriller, The Terminal Experiment is exciting, easy to follow, and at times offers a genuinely unique approach to the somewhat heavy theological topics at its centre. Where the book doesn’t succeed to the same degree, however, is with the depth of examination into these fascinating concepts.

There’s a certain amount of distance at work in the way in which Sawyer has constructed his narrative. The discovery of the soulwave is monumental—world changing, as a matter of fact. As it should be—science and religion have never been the most amicable of bunkmates, despite sharing the sheets more often than either would like. Throughout the book, Sawyer peppers chapter endings with brief interludes—web and multimedia stories offering snippets of information, details on how the existence of the soulwave and the device that detects it have permeated the deepest levels of government, religion, science, and the medical community. That’s without mentioning the re-examination effect it’s had on the population at large—the soulwave helping to determine exactly when a patient has died, so that their organs are not harvested prematurely; the soulwave not appearing in foetuses until nine weeks, changing how some interpret the abortion laws, or seek to change them for the “betterment” of mankind. Through all this, Hobson has become a celebrity and a potential murder suspect, yet his status never feels as if it has reached the heights it should. A discovery of this magnitude would bring so many to his feet, begging for a piece of the pie, while others would devote their lives and careers to proving him wrong; he’d be worshipped by those who want so desperately to believe, and hunted by those that fear what such a discovery could do to the status quo they’ve worked so hard to maintain in order to delegate their power. There would be riots, mass suicides, death threats coming out of the woodwork.

Yet in the wake of what could be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science and man, the world feels… silent. Sure, the soulwave has changed some lives—given solace and comfort to some, fear of retribution for their crimes to others—but it hasn’t changed the world. Even the experiments, the simulacrums themselves feel oddly confined. Murderous as one of them may be, Hobson has managed to collect potential data on what it might feel like to experience immortality, or to know the existence and purpose of an afterlife, yet no steps are taken to redirect the criminal actions of one of simulacrums by forcing the knowledge of their incredible existence into the public’s cone of sight. It feels, on a philosophical level, as if the existence and collected data within all three simulacrums, given the recent discovery of the soulwave and what it means for humanity, would be invaluable, whatever the cost of acquiring it. Criminal research into a soulless simulacrum, coupled with the soulwave detector, could expand how people with criminal tendencies are treated and understood.

Much as I enjoyed The Terminal Experiment, it does feel like a missed opportunity to dive so much deeper into the way the entire world would shift following such a discovery—especially when it’s considered that it is science, the bare-knuckle opponent of religion since time immemorial, that’s responsible for answering one of the most important theological mysteries of our time. While a terrific thriller, The Terminal Experiment treads frustratingly close to being something that could truly stand on its own, apart from all others.

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