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on October 3, 2002
4.5 out of 5 stars. I thoroughly enjoyed The Terminal Experiment. Having won the Nebula award I was wary of it since most award winners never live up to the hype that is piled on to them. But this book is one of those that wears the award in quiet satisfaction...never getting all the attention that others get (ie. the overly hyped Neuromancer that is far inferior to the much better, non-award winning, Snow Crash). This is my first foray into Sawyer's works, and The Terminal Experiment comes across as an early techno-thriller penned by Michael Crichton when he still wrote interesting works. It also reminds me of the movie Brainstorm in which thoughts can be recorded and they accidentally capture the image (thoughts) of someone entering the afterlife. Sawyer presents some interesting arguments about immortality, life after death, and the human soul...all in relation to artificial life (intelligence). The book moves along at a great pace, and the stuggles (professional and personal) of the main character are believable. One thing I learned from the book is to never make a copy of your brain pattern when you're [upset]. ;-)
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on August 2, 1997
Robert Sawyer has moved to the forefront of Canadian SF writers, largely on the basis of this book and StarPlex, both multi-nominated tales. Neither is up to the quality of the outstanding Far Seer trilogy, but that's hardly damning. What Terminal Experiment offers is a series of ideas wrapped up in Sawyer's second attempt at the SF mystery. The first was Golden Fleece and the 'mystery' quality of this book doesn't quite live up to that early effort, in a discipline that Isaac Asimov called the most difficult in the field. But all that's back story to this book.

Terminal Experiment features Peter Hobson, a scientist with a creationist bent, who invents a measuring device for souls. This puts him at the fork of a series of Hobson's choices that eventually lead to an AI-induced nightmare. His solution is pedestrian. The joy of the book is in the conundrums of existence that are raised. Describe your last meal at a restaurant with a friend or loved one. Did you describe the scene from the vantage point of your seat or did you assume the role of a third-party on-looker? It's a little tidbit, but the kind of item that prompts discussion after the fact. And what better legacy can a book have?

Read Terminal Experiment not for the mystery or even the near-future SF. Read it for the chance to talk about things you never imagined could be part of your life.
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on July 16, 2000
I've spent most of my life reading science fiction; I've read almost everything written before 1980, and a huge chunk of what's come since then. What I've loved most about the genre -- after the guilty pleasures of space opera -- is its capacity to take the unanswerable questions and try to answer them. Too often, the questions we want to know the answers to -- what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What happens to us after we die? -- are either unanswerable or fully realized in religion. So, for a science fiction writer to contemplate the nature of the soul and the afterlife, he runs two risks: one, that he will come up with ridiculous, unproveable answers, or two, that he will utterly infuriate one or more of the established religions. To Robert Sawyer's immense credit, he does neither. He constructs a fascinating premise: what if the soul could be proved to exist, and be proved to be heading somewhere after death? He then constructs another premise: he takes the protagonist's personality, and he makes three AI copies: one with no modifications, one that has all the bodily references deleted, and one with all the knowledge of aging and death deleted. That is his main story. The murder mystery that runs along side this plot is interesting, but it isn't the main point. Sawyer is asking the most important questions a human being can ask, and he's coming up with plausible answers. One of the paradoxes of science fiction is that its greatest books are religious in nature: "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "Dune" are two excellent examples. And while "The Terminal Experiment" isn't quite up to that level (what is?), it is a worthy younger brother to those older giants. The clear, lucid prose reminds me of Isaac Asimov's belief that nothing should get in the way of the story; the characters are not eccentrics, but everyday people, which serves Sawyer's purpose much better than coming up with oddballs that we might remember better. I enjoyed this book far more than any other sf novel in years, precisely because it brought me back to why I stayed in love with the genre after I grew up: it's the only literary form that still provides intellectual provocation.
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on June 27, 1998
When Science Fiction is at its best, the technology is so accurate that only small extensions make it "fiction" instead of "fact". That is definitely the case with the Artificial Intelligence technology utilized in this book. We may not be at the point of actually creating fully thinking simulations, but so MUCH of the technology is right, it is no suspension of belief by the reader to believe that this has been achieved in what is effectively a current day setting. It is truly evident that Sawyer consulted with the experts in the field.
When SF is doing its best, it uses the fictional world to deal with important issues. That is also handled adeptly in this book. The Terminal Experiment not only deftly discusses social issues such as abortion and infidelity, but also the "biggies" such as life, death, and the meaning of it all. Even the sidebars indicating media and commerce's reactions to the main character's discovery, which could have really been hokey if not done well, are fun rather than a distraction.
A+ for good SF; A+ for SF "doing good"; Sawyer immediately became one of my favorite authors on the reading of this book alone.
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on July 5, 2004
Robert Sawyer is nothing if not an "intellectual" - his stories, novels, and even his interviews on the talk-show circuit are not standard and run-of-the-mill. He likes to explore the Big Questions of the universe and in The Terminal Experiment, he tackles one of his favourites - exploration of the devine by supplying evidence of a creator. In addition, he throws in a healthy dose of artificial intellegence, a murder mystery, and some neat medical equipment.
The main character, Peter Hobson, has family problems at home - he's going through a rocky point in his marriage. At the same time, he discovers evidence (using a super-sensitive EEG) of a "coherent electromagnetic pulse" leaving the brain at the time of death. Naturally, theologians call this evidence for a human soul, which gets Hobson thinking: what is the afterlife like? With the help of a friend (and researcher into A.I.), he generates 3 virtual copies of himself. These copies live in cyberspace, two of which are modified to simulate immortal life and life after death.
When two men turn up dead, both of whom Hobson had something against, Hobson quickly determines that one of his computerised simulacra must have done the killing. But which one? And can it be stopped?
This book won a Nebula award, and it's easy to see why. It's an exciting adventure, and there are some neat ideas in it. It's also charmingly dated in places - for example, in the year 2011, Sawyer has the Commenwealth of Independent States still existing, and Carl Sagan shows up on a talk show. Unfortunately, as other reviewers have mentioned, there is the problem of too many things happening at once. Is this a story about the existence of the soul? Is it a story about computer-generated personalities committing murder? Sawyer never seems to sort out what the important storyline is, and the reader is left feeling that he had two good ideas for short stories, then combined them to make a novel. But it's great fun and a good read, so I can forgive such issues.
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on December 29, 2001
The Terminal Experiment proposes some interesting scenarios using artificial intelligence as it seeks to discover two of life's most intriguing questions--when does life actually end, and is there life after death? Both questions are both pragmatic and theological and can be viewed from more than one perspective. Dr. Peter Hobson, scientist and dabbler in life energies, discovers that there is a current in the brain that escapes at the moment of death; as he chooses to interpret it, the soul. Of course, this discovery opens all kinds of discussion from the most scientific to the most extreme religious fundamentalists.
When he and an old Muslim schoolmate and friend decide to create simulations of his brain to test their theories on the soul, they open a can of worms that cannot be eliminated despite all their high tech prowess. With three simulations loose on the Internet implementing what they conceive of as Peter's desires, things become frightening and desperate.
Add to all this Peter's dilemma over his wife's infidelity and you have a futuristic mystery with morals and ethics problems thrown in. This is a thoroughly entertaining book with lots of future scientific advances mentioned as well as the very real question of what reliable scientists should do with artificial intelligence. A fast page turner, it is also thought-provoking and intelligent.
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on February 2, 1999
Four stars may be a little too generous for this book, but 3 seems to chintzy. Sawyer starts out inventing a super EEG to helop define brain death and (oops!) discovers the human soul. What this has to do with the rest of the book is uncertain and as such, the first 75 pages are largely superfluous. He uses this beginning to set up his characters, which he does in a soap opera type fashion, but spends too long introducing a technology that is irrelevant to the story.
When the true plot is unveiled, it is well mapped out but a little too superficial. Further distracting from the story are continuous references to the "soldwave" which serve little purpose.
Lastly, we are told fro the beginning that one of the computor simulations is the murderer, but it is a little too easy to figure out which one it is.
So why do I give this book 3 and a half stars? Because despite its flaws, its and enjoyable, if simple, read.
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on January 3, 1998
I read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is rightly classed as science fiction because it deals with potential new technologies, how they may be used, how they may affect society (although a bit of discussion beyond Net messages would have been better) and how the "monsters" created by Robert Sawyer's main character get out of control. Don't be put off by the absence of interplanetary wars and lots of wonderful new technologies to ponder. The setting and extrapolation of current trends is quite realistic, and welcome at a time when we are facing the need to debate issues which challenge our ages old vision of humanity. Concerns expressed by other reviewers regarding the number of references to Star Trek and use of aging talkshow hosts are petty. This is classic science fiction because we could open a newspaper tomorrow and read about exactly the sort of research Robert Sawyer discusses. I'll be seeking out other titles by this author.
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on December 29, 2003
This book won the Science Fiction Writers Association's Nebula Award, and it's easy to see why. It deftly balances believable characterization with brilliant scientific exposition. This was Sawyer's first big award win (he went on to win the Hugo in 2003 for HOMINIDS), and definitely marked a turning point in his career. I've heard Sawyer say that he likes to combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic and that's certainly what he does here, with the story of a marriage on the rocks set against the discovery of scientific proof for the existence of the human soul (and idea I was initially turned off by but that Sawyer sells very effectively). I think this was the first of Sawyer's books to be set in his hometown of Toronto, something that has become one of his hallmarks. It's not his first to also be a mystery novel (that would be GOLDEN FLEECE), but it certainly is one of the most clever whodunnit premises I've ever seen. Top marks!
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on August 11, 2000
There were two main ideas in the book: the philosophical implications of the discovery of a 'soulwave' that exits the body after death and an AI experiment that makes three differing copies of a human's brain to determine what makes up a soul. The author should have stuck to these concepts.
The subplot regarding an affair between the protagonist's wife and a coworker took up far too much of the book. This subplot did feed into the main plot, but the point was belabored. Another subplot involved the investigation, rather simplistic, of the murders of the coworker and the wife's father.
The dialog in this novel was very stilted. For example, when they weren't talking about technical concepts, the protagonist and his AI friend interacted like teenagers, complete with obscure Star Trek references. I found the monologs spouted by the AI versions of the protagonist to be the best dialog in the novel.
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