Sunday, February 07, 2010

Book Review: The Terminal Experiment

The Terminal ExperimentRobert J. Sawyer
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ - -

This book has a fantastic premise. It is also a real page-turner. It moves right along and is fun to read, like a Stephen King novel. In the end, though, the plot doesn’t quite stand up to either the promise of the initial idea or the exciting writing.

The story begins when a medical researcher builds some experimental equipment that accidentally scientifically proves the existence of the human soul. This, of course, changes the way everyone looks at everything. It gets especially interesting when other scientists using his equipment are able to discover that (a) cows don't have a soul but chimpanzees do, and (b) the soul enters a fetus sometime between the 9th and 10th weeks of pregnancy (which makes both sides of the choice debate unhappy). This is all plenty good as a plot line.

It starts to get unwieldy about halfway through the book when the researcher does another experiment with his new equipment where he creates three artificial intelligences that are copies of his own brain. One copy is the control, which has both his temporal-brain and soul-brain patterns and is supposed to be identical to him. Another copy has just his temporal-brain patterns and is supposed to be a version of his living self that knows it is immortal. And the third copy has only his soul-brain pattern and is supposed to emulate his brain after death.

Once he’s created them, the three AIs discover that his wife has been cheating on him and one of them uses the net to arrange to have his wife's lover killed. The book turns into sort of a detective story from then on – to discover which one of the AIs did it – and veers away from the soul experimentation story.

Both the murder mystery and the soul-existence stories are fun to read, but combined together it made the novel disjointed. I would have also liked to explore more of the soul science rather than the murder mystery, because that part was so much more original.

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