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Robert J. Sawyer
By David Pitt, April 2005

The thing about Robert Sawyer is, he writes the kind of science fiction that, in lesser hands, would sound ... well, silly. Mindscan, set a mere four decades from now, is about Jake Sullivan, a man who, because he fears he may have an inoperable brain defect, undergoes a new procedure that copies his consciousness into an artificial body. Jake falls in love with a woman who has done the same; she's the author of a series of popular children's novels, and soon she's being sued by her son because (he says) she gave up her claim to her fabulous wealth when she put her mind in its new body.
Meanwhile, on the moon, where the "shed skins" of those who undergo the Mindscan process are supposed to live out their days in quiet anonymity, Jake's original (biological) self takes some people hostage because he wants to go back home. But he can't go home, because he assigned his rights of personhood to his robotic self, and see what I mean? Say it straight out like this, and it sounds downright foolish.

It isn't foolish, though. It's imaginative, plausibly presented, and immensely thought provoking. Sawyer bases his speculative fiction on cutting-edge scientific research; the way he tells it, using "quantum fog" to copy our minds into artificial bodies seems like it's just around the corner. Certainly the very notion of an artificial body isn't nearly as far fetched as it might have seemed, even a handful of years ago. And a settlement on the moon, where the "shed skins" live in the lap of luxury? Well, heck, we could build a moon colony today, if we wanted to spend the money.

But that stuff isn't what the novel's really about, anyway. It's really about what it means to be a human being, and all the high-tech gimmickry and science-fictiony trappings are just a way to let Sawyer explore the notion. If you think it's a simple notion, consider this: if I get I'm injured, and one of my arms is replaced with a prosthetic, and then, oh, let's say a plastic surgeon gives me a new nose, am I still me? What if my doctor discovers I have a congenital heart defect, and they take my heart out and put in a new one? Am I still me?

What if my body is defective, close to dying, and somebody makes an exact copy of my brain, of my memories and everything I ever knew, or believed, or felt, or thought, and puts it in a new body? Which one is me, the healthy new version or the faulty original? Are they both me? And can my brain in an artificial body still feel anger, and frustration, and hatred ... and love?
Sawyer writes the kind of science fiction that must really annoy people who think science fiction is infantile rubbish about spaceships, and ray guns, and bug-eyed monsters. Because Sawyer's science fiction is about ideas: big, wondrous ideas. In the guise of science fiction, he's tackled morality, religion, racism, and, over and over again, he's tackled the nature of humanity.

He creates the kinds of characters you don't often see in science fiction: fully realized, complex men and women who are literate, sensitive, and inquisitive. Sawyer's dialogue is packed with substance, with intellectual debate and philosophical exploration and passion.

That doesn't mean his books are stodgy, in case you're wondering. He writes fiction, not text books, and his novels are packed with humour and adventure and impishness. (President Pat Buchanan? Shudder ...) The story plays out in real places: Toronto, Detroit. The Fairmont Royal York hotel. Oh, and the guy really likes his pop culture references, too: here, his characters discuss Thunderbirds, Finding Nemo, Tom Selleck, soylent green, and Will Smith (who, Sawyer mentions casually, has won an Academy Award for playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman). Using things we know and understand, places that actually exist, grounds his stories in a solid, tactile reality. This makes the things he writes about -- foreign things, unfamiliar things, unsettling things -- seem less foreign, less unfamiliar, less unsettling.

Incidentally, in case I haven't yet impressed upon you just how original and imaginative Sawyer's novels are, I ought to tell you that Mindscan is narrated, simultaneously, by both versions of Jake Sullivan, the "real" (i.e., robotic) one and the "shed skin" (i.e., the biological original). It's all very clever, very stimulating, and -- in places -- very moving. If you've never read Sawyer, you've been missing out.
Robert J. Sawyer lives and writes just west of Toronto, Canada. Find out more about the author at
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