This novel earned Robert J. Sawyer his first Nebula, and while I quite enjoyed it, I have to wonder. A Nebula novel? Come now. Perhaps it's a matter of taste. But when I think of Nebulas, I think of sweeping stories that fill you with a dazzling sense of wonder, stories that withstand the test of the ages, to become true classics. The Left Hand of Darkness. The Stars My Destination. You know. Something that goes just a cut above and beyond what one might term good storytelling, into an elevated, dare I say exalted realm. Here, what we have is a fun cyberthriller that, for all its ingenious plotting and storytelling savvy, is still, in all honesty, more of a kindred spirit to the novels of Michael Crichton and Dan Brown. Yes, strictly speaking, it's SF, just as Crichton's The Andromeda Strain is SF. But it's mainstream SF, an above-average example of the kind of book you'd buy at the airport. Does this make it any less deserving of its Nebula? No, I guess it doesn't. Perhaps I'm being too much of a purist. Perhaps there's simply no one writing books like The Stars My Destination any more.
The story involves a medical researcher named Peter Hobson who, after gaining prominence and wealth inventing a hyper-sensitive EEG to determine the exact instant of a person's death, one day pinpoints what comes to be called the "soulwave," an electrical discharge that is seen exiting the dying patient's skull through the temple. The discovery, as you might expect, galvanizes the world. When Hobson is cornered by a million journalists who want to know the impossible — is there in fact an afterlife and what is it like? — he comes up with an experiment that could render some answers.
Hooking up with a colleague who has perfected computer technology that will accurately scan, down to the last axon, and replicate the human mind, Hobson uses his own brain as a guinea pig for a most unusual test. Three duplicates of his mind are created. One is totally unmodified, to be used as the control. In essence, it's a perfect copy of Hobson, stored on a hard drive. The second copy, meant to simulate
a hypothetical afterlife, has all memories of physical bodily existence erased. The third has all knowledge of aging and death erased, and is meant to simulate Hobson if he were in fact immortal. (Something which has also become a potential reality in Sawyer's near-future through an insanely expensive nanotechnology process. In a stroke of satirical inspiration Sawyer has one of the first applicants be Geraldo Rivera.)
Now, the purpose of all this is simply to answer the question of what an afterlife might be like. Perfectly innocent, of course. But.... Yes, you're way ahead of me. What we are dealing with are three complete human personalities now stored on a computer, all of which have access to the world via the Internet and other matrices. And a couple of these digital clones have had elements erased which would, you might say, serve as inhibitors to some of a person's more base personality traits. And if you have no fear of pain or retribution, you might do all sorts of things you would never, ever do in real life. For instance, let's deal with this asshole who slept with your wife a few months ago...
Now, I disagree powerfully with the premise advanced by those of a religious or spiritual bent, that morality requires some kind of metaphysical source and that it is only through fear of recrimination and punishment that anyone would have any reason to be moral. A rational person understands that moral behavior is rational behavior. There are more than sufficient pragmatic reasons to live a good life. However, it's true that, for whatever reason (largely religious indoctrination, I'd say), most people don't have a rational or pragmatic outlook on morality and may very well accept the notion that to be freed from fear of personal or "spiritual" retribution equals freedom from moral responsibility. So in that sense, what happens to Peter Hobson is believable dramatically.
The Terminal Experiment certainly has a terrific bestseller set-up, the kind of high-concept pitch that would send a Hollywood mogul into dopamine overload. And Sawyer handles the "which simulation is the evil one?" mystery with appropriate gusto, knowing precisely which of his readers' hot buttons to push at precisely what moment. Yes, as with most popular fiction, there's an aspect of manipulation to all that, but here Sawyer does it skillfully and not nearly as offensively as he does in a number of his other books.
This is an enjoyable and recommended slice of entertainment. But that's really all it is. An entertainment. And I guess I think that, to merit a Nebula, a book ought to be just a little bit more, to cross that fine line between a hit and a classic.