(2012) Robert J. Sawyer, Gollancz, trdpbk, £14.99, 342pp, ISBN 978-0-575-12958-0
It is the near future and the President of the US is wounded in an assassination attempt. He is rushed to hospital. While he is in surgery there is a follow-up terrorist incident with an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) bomb blowing up the White House. The pulse has a large radius and affects the hospital treating the President. Unbeknown by the surgery team, nearby within the hospital a new memory technique is being conducted for addressing post traumatic stress disorder. The EMP causes the memory therapy equipment to generate a field encompassing the President and others. The net result is that each person within this bubble can access the memories of just one other person who was within the bubble at that time. Alas the effect is first order, so that while everyone who was within the bubble can access one other person's memories, they cannot access the memories of the next person in the chain. Equally alas, the effect seems permanent. The question then arises is who has access to the President's memories, hence secrets of national security therein?!
Many of Robert Sawyer's novels have been absent from the British Isles for a number of years, and so we have had to rely on imported copies. Back in the 1990s Voyager did publish some of his novels this side of the Pond, but subsequently we had a decade's gap even though he was regularly being published in N. America. However in 2009 Gollancz belatedly published an edition of his 1999 novel Flashforward to coincide with the TV series then being aired. Now the novel was far better than the drawn-out television series, and had a better SFnal rationale underpinning it. (Sawyer's novels are far more suited to a 3-part TV miniseries than a 15-part season, and he should not be seduced into lending his works to an unsuitable format if he wants true success in the visual media.) Yet sales of the book must have been sufficiently favourable for Gollancz then published his (2009-11) juvenile SF 'Worldwide Web' trilogy that can be read by teenagers and older readers alike (whose novels have won some Canadian Aurora Awards). And now (2012) we have Triggers.
Sawyer's characterisation and writing may not be the most sophisticated but he does craft a cracking SFnal adventure and do the necessary research to underpin his story. Indeed, for me the greatest thing I like about his stories is that he takes an SF concept and explores numerous aspects of it: he lets you have the science fiction square on with both barrels! So what you get with him is a solid SF tale, straightforwardly and simply told but at a cracking pace with the science fiction right up there in your face. As such I feel reading his books today somewhat like I did reading Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov when I was younger in the 1970s.
In this light there is little wrong with Triggers. My one niggle is perhaps that he does not know where to stop and so his final two chapters do stretch the concept, and the book's initial premise, to breaking point. Arguably a shame because sometimes less is more. I say 'arguably', and that this is only a 'niggle' and because an over-the-top ending does at least ramp up the SF stakes to the bitter end, and if you have gotta go then going out spectacularly is not at all that bad a thing.
Let downs? None really, though I am getting a little weary of the Sawyer 'About the author' back-of-book pages that bang on about how many awards the man has accrued. Those who know about SF awards realise that while they are given for recognition by the SF community they are in no way an actual measure of the very best SF stories published in any year. If they were then the same titles would win multiple awards and in reality, while this happens a few times, these are the exception rather than the rule. Furthermore, Robert Sawyer has now got so many novels under his belt that he really does not need such self-aggrandising end-book bios. Instead what I would like to see as an appendix is an insight to what he does best: the exploration of an SF concept and/or trope. He could use a few pages to explain the science and the thinking behind the concept his novel has explored. This is the sort of thing that authors like Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan do at the end of their hard SF novels. Here, the memory-linking concept at the heart of Triggers does have a science rationale loosely underpinning it which Sawyer does touch on in the course of the novel. Indeed regular readers of journals like Science and Nature who are into SF (hence into science fact exotica) will know that there has been an increasing number of papers over the past half-decade that point to some related and likely intriguing developments in the years to come: the implications of this area of research are certainly going to have an astounding effect both on the way we live and on even bigger hypothetical questions such as SETI (the past and current such ventures I have always considered to be a dead-end just for this very reason). Indeed the week I draft this book review there has been yet another paper related to this topic in Science by Jürgen Volz and Arno Rauschenbeutel (vol. 337, pages 72-75) that provides a small but necessary step on our way to realising practical aspects of this technology. Anyway, I digress…
What we have with Triggers is a good Robert Sawyer SF adventure that rollicks along giving readers a grand ride for their money, and there is not a lot wrong with that. In fact someone might want to publish some of the author's backlist as there really are half a dozen or so of his books that deserve an airing in western Europe. With there being a likelihood of enticing the man over here (from Canada) for the London Worldcon in a couple of year's time, now would be a fine time for a publisher (be it Gollancz or Voyager) to think about releasing a clutch of the best of Sawyer's novels to date and perhaps have an author tour of the British Isles. Just a thought.
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