Review: Mindscan, by Robert J. Sawyer

>>Published: December 2005

>>Finally got around to it: January 2012

“You know,” said Sugiyama, “there used to be a lot of debate about this, but it’s all evaporated in the last few years. The simplest interpretation turned out to be the correct one: the human mind is nothing but software running on the hardware we call the brain. Well, when your old computer hardware wears out, you don’t think twice about junking it, buying a new machine, and reloading all your old software. What we at Immortex do is the same: the software that is you starts running on a new, better hardware platform.”

“It’s still not the real you,” grumbled someone in front of me.

If he heard the comment, Sugiyama was undaunted. “Here’s an old poser from philosophy class. Your father gives you an ax. After a few years of good service, the wooden handle breaks, and so you replace it. Is it still the ax your father gave you? Sure, why not? But then a few years after that, the metal head breaks, and you replace that. Now nothing of the original is left—it wasn’t replaced all at once, but rather piece-by-piece. Is it still your father’s ax? Before you answer too quickly, consider the fact that the atoms that make up your own body are completely replaced every seven years: there’s not one bit of the you who was once a baby that still exists; it’s all been replaced. Are you still you? Of course you are: the body doesn’t matter, the physical instantiation doesn’t matter. What matters is the continuity of being: the ax traces its existence back to being a gift from your father; it is still that gift. And—” he underscored his next words with a pointing finger “—anyone who can remember having been you before is you now.”

***

Jake Sullivan’s brain is a clock counting down to zero: inevitably, like his now-vegetative father before him, Jake will succumb to a rare arteriovenous malformation called Katerinsky’s syndrome; the arteries and veins in his brain are tangled in such a way that they will one day burst—not quite killing him, but leaving him in a permanent catatonic state. In Toronto, in the year 2045, a lingering threat such as this is dealt with not through surgery, but with a Mindscan—a new and very expensive process that maps every connection in the brain, from basic memories, thoughts, and feelings to the ideas and intangibles that are so frequently identified as being human-only traits.

Though not yet a legal procedure in the United States, where abortion laws have been turned back to once again restrict women’s rights by redefining what is and isn’t considered the earliest state of recognized life (Roe v. Wade was overturned by Littler v. Carvey), the Mindscan process allows for a mind to be replicated and placed in a synthetic body double. Though not so perfectly human in design as to seamlessly blend into the populace, the synthetic bodies offer durability and adaptability, so that the mind and memories they host can, barring some tragic form of destruction, live forever. Meanwhile, the original blueprint—the flesh and blood human—is shuttled off to a paradise hospice on the far side of the moon called High Eden, where they will live out their remaining days as human in being, but no longer on Earth, where their Mindscan doppelganger has accepted control of the life the original had once led.

Robert J. Sawyer’s Mindscan follows two iterations of Jake: the original, organic model that opts to undergo the Mindscan process to extend his life beyond the few remaining years he imagines Katerinsky’s syndrome will give him; and his synthetic counterpart, a not-so-flesh-and-blood man with Jake’s mind, his memories, and his mannerisms, as he struggles to fit in to the life he remembers having led as a human.

It’s clear that Sawyer has a deep interest in what defines a human as “Human.” In an earlier book, The Terminal Experiment, he posited a world in which science discovered the existence of the soul as a wave of energy that abandons the body upon death. With Mindscan, he’s taken this a step further to ask: if we could duplicate our minds, would the second mind be the same? Could it ever be considered the same? Or is something intangible and impossible to define lost the very moment an organic life ends?

The question addressed in Mindscan is not what is it that moves on, rather what is it that’s left behind. Is a duplicated mind still a human mind? Because even though the memories have been replicated, they have not been transferred wholesale—meaning that the original model, the organic man that has copied his consciousness into a synthetic body to ensure that he will go on to experience a life beyond his first, will still have to face death and what, if anything, lies beyond. He won’t live forever—a version of himself that he will never truly know will in fact be the one who lives forever. And neither shall ever experience the ultimate ends of the other.

Instead of travelling down this philosophical rabbit hole (Does the soul exist? If so, does it depart with the original body? Or does it jump ship and move into the synthetic?), Sawyer looks almost exclusively at the legal ramifications to the Mindscan procedure, should something like this ever come to pass. Granted certain philosophical concepts enter into the proceedings, but the bulk of the synthetic Jake’s storyline revolves around a courtroom drama to answer the question of whether or not an individual’s rights to personhood can be transferred to something not deemed entirely human. And from that jumping off point, what is and isn’t human, and what defines the earliest and final forms of life. Meanwhile, in High Eden, the organic Jake has been unexpectedly cured of the syndrome that was expected to take his life, and has taken hostages in an effort to circumvent the contract he signed with Immortex, the company responsible for the Mindscan procedure, to coerce them into contacting his synthetic counterpart on the Earth below. Because the organic Jake has been cured, he sees High Eden not as a final destination, but as a prison he must escape, to resume the life he thought he had been forced to preemptively give up.

Mindscan is a lot of fun, but its philosophical and legal conceits mask what is in essence a very thin story. As intriguing as the court case is, it usurps control from the more personal stories that we were given only glimpses of—of watching Jake and his lover, Karen (also a Mindscan replicant) fumble their way through friends and family that may or may not accept them; of witnessing the public at large reacting to synthetic humans in their midst; of seeing, beyond the boundaries of the courtroom, actual public expressions of religious and political response to the growing reality of humanity duplicated and extended beyond boundaries that had existed since the dawn of time.

A similar problem of scope existed within The Terminal Experiment: Sawyer is full of grand ideas, but focuses in on them through a very narrow lens. These narratives feel as if they’re taking place on a world the size of an island, where sweeping change crosses a city and not a country or continent. Though I respect the desire to represent Jake and Karen’s synthetic lives through a more personal scope, the limited worldview actually hampers this in that they feel as two unique people amongst a very small populace, not two people on the cusp of change that might affect the entire planet.

Additionally, Sawyer struggles to build an effective futurescape by peppering small social and historical details throughout the story in somewhat clumsy ways. For example:

Deshawn pulled a golden disk out of his pocket. “What’s this, Karen?”

“A Reagan.”

“By which you mean a ten-dollar United States coin, correct? With the American eagle on one side and former president Ronald Reagan on the other, is that right?”

Similar instances occur with name-dropping possible future presidents, court cases that may or may not have happened, social change and historical events, etc. They don’t do any extensive damage to the story, but their obviousness and lack of subtle explanation does hinder the illusion of a genuine future world.

Robert J. Sawyer has some big ideas, and he is an engaging storyteller, but his narratives seem consistently affected by an overall lack of creative subtlety. One can’t help but feel that he wants to take these ideas further than he’s seemingly capable of doing, either mechanically through his writing or stylistically in his construction of character and narrative. It’s as if the ideas are there, but he’s afraid to cut the cord and let all the craziness out. That being said, Mindscan shows a great deal of intelligence—scientific and philosophical—and stylistic growth over his earlier works. Should he continue in this way, science fiction will be the beneficiary.

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