The nerd gods must be crazy: SFaaNM and The Terminal Experiment (1995) by Robert J. Sawyer

TheTerminalExperiment1Always with that contrived, ripped-from-the-headlines-plugged-into-a-thriller-type feel and the distracting sense that his characters are just cameos of folks he met while researching his book, but you would think that after decades (and even centuries) of SF exploring the ramifications of AI and the afterlife, Sawyer would come up with something more insightful than just murderous AIs and an imaginary proof of soul-life resulting from a few taps on the keyboard. Another example of hailed Hard sci-fi that relies on arbitrary fantasy tools and measurements that are just as fuzzy as any magic spell. As a nineties novel, it can be valued for its projections of the current form of the digital age, though most interesting is the optimistic ending for his highly flawed protagonist. Given Sawyer’s commercial success and formulaic approach, it’s hard not to wonder if he and his readers have overlooked the fact of the protagonist’s abominable, sociopathic behavior. But surely…


…is what I wrote on Goodreads, where I usually record my immediate post-read impressions. I guess I was feeling grumpy that night.

But it’s a healthy exercise to consider other viewpoints, especially when I’m too lazy and disinterested to interrogate the novel myself. To shut oneself off from what is still a viable and prevalent form of SF expression: the stodgy Hard SF thriller– no matter how didactic and superficial and recycled it may seem to me– is to miss out on the big SF picture, which is why I’m still okay with reading other people’s favorites, even when the cool thing is to absorb oneself in comfortable genre enclaves. Still, I’ve read enough of Robert Sawyer’s novels to find myself in automatic dismissal mode, which isn’t fair to him, and it definitely isn’t fair to me, who is bored right now with science fiction techno-fantasy. But I need an angle!

So I am grateful that the British Science Fiction Association’s summer 2015 edition of Vector includes an essay by C. Patel of Lancaster University, which uses The Terminal Experiment (originally serialized in Analog as “Hobson’s Choice,” a title I would love to despise, but look at my own title here and then tell me to shut up) to examine another insight into Sawyer’s novels in “Breaking Out of Eden: Science Fiction as a New Mythology in Robert J. Sawyer’s Writings.” Science Fiction as a New Mythology (SFaaNM, let’s call it) is not a new theory, nor is it something I’m very comfortable with adopting, but it’s a different lens to examine Sawyer’s work when I feel like I’ve pretty much got his process pegged. Unfortunately, like much of recent science fiction scholarship I’ve read (and, let’s get real, other kinds of academic scholarship), Patel simply recapitulates old ideas using new(er)(ish) books, eagerly fitting Sawyer’s work onto the bookshelf that is SFaaNM, and not even neatly, at that.

Patel knows that SFaaNM is not a new notion and spends the first chunk of the essay in lit review mode, eventually boiling down the components of mythology to what Patel considers “That basic question, ‘what is it to be human?’” With that question in mind, it’s reasonable that Patel would consider science fiction about artificial intelligence an informative angle to approach ‘That basic question,’ although I can’t help but wonder why Robert Sawyer’s novels, which are so recent, so dependent on prior works, and so superficial, deserve this kind of analysis. Lacking even a nod to Asimov, Dick, or Gibson (which alone would make for shaky generalizations about the nature of SF’s exploration of humanity anyway) inhibits Patel’s generalizations about SFaaNM via the characterization of artificial intelligence. Instead, all we learn by the end of the essay is that “Robert J. Sawyer demonstrates a belief that science and religion are interconnected.” That’s nice for RJS, and perhaps RJS fans, but it tells us nothing about “That basic question,” or even how science fiction in general can behave as mythology to answer it.

Like the annoying reader I am, I was hoping for a more insightful conclusion and am disappointed that it didn’t go my way. Bad reader! (which is the name of my next blog and no you can’t have it.)

Part of the issue is that Patel parks the conclusion too far away from the most intriguing and relevant content of the article. Through a series of quotes from a variety of SF nonfiction courses, the article touches on the idea of humanity being recast as God or gods in science fiction. Humans as dieties– omnipotent, unpredictable, dangerous, merciful– is not a new idea, but it’s applicable to the premise of The Terminal Experiment, it can best explain the novel’s perceived flaws (though Patel see none as far as I can tell), and can potentially be applied to much of the Hard SF field.

In fact, I would go one further (and someone has probably done this already) and reframe this idea not as “humans as dieties,” but “individual as diety.” For, in this kind of science fiction, it is always one man to save/destroy (often both, often vice versa) us all.

TheTerminalExperiment2In The Terminal Experiment, Dr. Peter Hobson and his friend Dr. Sarkar Muhammad employ a variety of computer hocus pocus to scan and copy Hobson’s brain onto a computer. Each copy receives different treatment, again through a variety of computer hocus pocus, keeping one copy intact as the control group, while eliminating biological function in one, and mortality in another. Naturally, the copies escape to the internet and one of them goes on a murderous spree against Hobson’s enemies, but Hobson can’t decide which copy is the murderer. In another we-know-it’s-going-to-be-related-eventually arc, Hobson, with his own technological hocus pocus, invents equipment to detect and measure the soul, what he terms “the soulwave.”

Throughout the Vector article, Patel lobs several unexamined assumptions about the novel– and humanity in general– particularly with regard to death, morality, and the soul. At one point, Patel states unequivocally and without evidence, “Death, or mortality, is often the only measure of humanness,” which landed a great big “What?” in the margins of my copy. (I suspect this statement stems from a tunnel vision comparison with AI entities, which is still too simple and flimsy considering Megatext context, but the greater real world context is also ignored in that statement: even mechanical things die.) Additionally, Patel cites a similarly unexamined passage as evidence, one in which the control AI explains why it murdered Hobson’s enemies, when Hobson himself did not:

You have to worry about the consequences of your actions. Not just legally, but morally. You were brought up in a world that says there is a higher arbiter of morality, and that you will be judged. …[N]o matter how much you hated him, you would not kill him. The potential cost is too high; you have an immortal soul, and that at least suggests the possibility of damnation. But I have no soul. I will never be judged.

Lots of assumptions about souls here that you have to buy before you can get on that train, but I won’t get into that. The truth is, Hobson-the-human is a sociopath, and Sawyer (intentionally or not, though I’m leaning toward the intentional at this moment in time) characterizes him as such. There are other heightened idiosyncrasies in the text to support this: he is selfish, arrogant, disproportionately critical of others while being socially insecure, and a classic passive misogynist. Also, and this is kind of important, he hates some people enough to want to kill them, which, if anyone needs to be reminded, wanting to kill people is sociopathic. The atheist Hobson does not kill, but not because the presence of a soul morally precludes him from it, but because it would be inconvenient, it would mess up his life, and he would get caught. Hobson’s sense of self-preservation is stronger than his sense of morality (or soul-threatening eternal doom) indicated by his eagerness to hide his knowledge of the actual killer from the police, in order to prevent his own arrest, thus allowing the AI killer to roam free and kill again (which it does).

Patel, for some reason, interprets Hobson’s actions as evidence of guilt: guilt for replacing God to become the Creator of beings, and guilt that the AI version most like him is the actual murderer. The final leg of that reasoning is not followed through, however: this is a selfish type of guilt. Hobson doesn’t actually feel guilty for the deaths themselves.

Moreover, what Patel interprets as guilt, I interpret as moral and lifestyle self-preservation. A person ridden with guilt would not prolong the AIs’ existences and protect them from law enforcement. Hobson’s actions are only to keep himself out of jail (and to see what more his AI doppelgangers can do).

(…and this is where I feel weird writing this essay because splitting hairs over the behaviors of a fake person is just a little too wearisome and pointless for me. So back to the Big Idea!)

TheTerminalExperiment3If Patel had intended to demonstrate that Sawyer’s work is modern day mythology because it’s all based on bullshit, then yes, I can get behind that idea. The mechanics of AI software, the alterations, the equipment used to identify and measure the “soul wave” is all textual hocus pocus. Instead, Patel’s main aim is to identify a gentle, hole-in-the-sheet chaste marriage between religion and science in Sawyer’s work, without really interrogating what this means in the greater scheme of things, in particular what it means when individuals are recast as deities in modern SF, despite relying on a considerable number of quotes that point in this direction. More importantly, this kind of conclusion means that SFaaNM is a poor kind of substitute for a cultural literature, doing nothing to improve upon archaic, mystical ideas which are moralized to control the populace while the powerful (nerds) play and shoot lightning bolts from the sky.

But what is Sawyer’s purpose of this novel? Is it, as many fans and Goodreads reviewers see it, simply an exercise of scientific ethics? An imagining of the consequences of controversial scientific advancements in a rational and liberal, but still faith-based, society? If so, is this sociopathic rendering of Hobson (and Dr. Sarkar– let us not forget the eager accomplice) a warning of nerddoomdeification from the usually science-positive Sawyer? And ultimately, does this warning even matter if, in the end, like any selfish mythological god, Hobson can walk away unscathed after the damage he has caused, influenced, and prolonged?

Mary Shelley would call this a horror novel.

Oh, and did I mention? Nebula winner.

21 thoughts on “The nerd gods must be crazy: SFaaNM and The Terminal Experiment (1995) by Robert J. Sawyer

  1. Warstub says:

    Huh. I feel like I know Sawyer’s name, but can’t recall reading anything of his and am confident my reading list (wherever it is) will show that I haven’t.

    So this won a nebula? I’m really interested to see how Greg Egan’s ‘Permutation City’ might stack up next to it, which was nominated for the P.K. Dick award and won the John W. Campbell award for 1995. It deals with artificial life and consciousness as well.

    Has anyone done Hollywood as the New Mythology?


    • I feel like I see Sawyer everywhere I go. He’s huge in Canada, of course, (Canadian product placement is one of his signature moves, and this book was paid for by a Canadian grant), and the Spanish love him. He keeps winning Spanish SF awards, and I always see his books at Spanish-language book fairs in the US, Mexico, and in Spain. It’s gotten to where to my summer vacations have become a game of “Spot the Sawyer.”

      English-language SF is so ubiquitous in my world that it seems to drown out the rest of the SF world, but I wonder if there are Spanish and Mexican SF fans who think the Robert Sawyer is the only SF writer from white North America.

      Yep, it won a Nebula. It would be interesting to see comparisons of it with the Egan novel. Is it also a book about one smart nerd doing horrific things with science and getting away with it?

      I’ll bet “Hollywood as the New Mythology” has been done. But has anyone done “The Kardashians as the New Mythology”? Because that just might work.


      • Warstub says:

        I felt like Hollywood was a far better, and more realistic, mythological concept than SF. When I project my mind forward, Hollywood and stardom is the most obvious stand-out aspect to our modern society. SF is like a footnote (albeit, an interesting footnote in that authors projected futures that the culture of our times just couldn’t being to fruition, or were entirely ignorant of unless a small snippet became reality (Star Trek’s Communicators => Cell Phones)). On the other hand, Virtual Reality has finally arrived, and this ties in very neatly with Egan, even if that aspect might be a long, long time away.

        I just tried reading the Wikipedia entry on Permutation City and got a little lost. I’d say it’s more about what science does to smart nerds and not getting away with it! Haha.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree that SF is just a footnote. It’s not that big of a deal, especially in the forms we usually see. That’s partly why I can’t get on board with the SFaaNM concept. SF tropes leak into every day culture, but nobody really believes in this stuff. The biggest SF fans see it simply as an escape from the real world, not a tome of cultural truth.

          Hollywood as mythology: heads are certainly more likely to turn and pay attention to the Hollywood pantheon than to a few dumb SF tropes. I can’t deny its influence, even on myself, and I hardly pay any active attention.


    • Joseph Nebus says:

      Is this the one where the guy uploads his brain to a vacuum cleaner? I remember a serialized-in-Analog novel from around this time which featured that. But it doesn’t sound like that’s the same story. (The vacuum cleaner was the only sufficiently capacious computer available during some emergency, even though when you lay it out like that the gimmick sounds really stupid.)

      I definitely read the soulwave story at some point, though. It struck me as a great gimmick for a story, though the story obviously hasn’t stuck much with me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the article I discussed may have mentioned the vacuum cleaner upload story. And what do you mean gimmick? Who hasn’t been stuck in the utility closet during a minor emergency with desperate wish to unload one’s head.

        Gimmickry is a good word for this kind of SF.


  2. Widdershins says:

    ‘ … a gentle, hole-in-the-sheet chaste marriage between religion and science …’
    Drops mic and walks away 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jesse says:

    “They drove along, CJMX-FM playing softly on the car’s stereo: the current song was Geri Halliwell’s rendition of “It’s Raining Men.” “So,” said Reuben, looking over at Louise, “make me a believer: why do you think Ponter came from a parallel universe.”

    That is a direct quote from Sawyer’s Hominids (a vapid fart puff of a novel) which I think pretty much sums up Sawyer’s m.o. It’s accessible, easy to approach fiction that leads the reader by the hand through the “difficult” technical parts and otherwise follows very familiar character and plot paths. The straight-forward nature of his language I can see being one reason for the foreign popularity, the low common denominator, mainstream appeal being the rest. Otherwise, I have seen little genuine academic muscle put into his work. (I have seen discussion of plot drivers, but little how he develops or represents the ideas in a manner exceeding entertainment – something your review of Patel’s work enforces for me.) Also, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is notably glib as to the quality of his work, preferring objective descriptions of plots and devices. Making all of this worse is the narcissism. Self-promotion is one thing, but Sawyer’s style is so much me-me-me. (If you can bear it, listen to his episode on Coode Street. The self-assumption turns my stomach…)

    Will we be seeing more combination fic/non-fic reviews in the future? I rather enjoyed this.


    • OMYGODS I HATE Hominids so much. And Humans– the awful awful the sequel. It was worse. Hominids is probably the worst Hugo winner ever.

      I’m glad somebody enjoyed this post 🙂 I thought it would spark more discussion than it did. I should probably just stick to my one-liners and complaints about too much boobage in books.

      On ISFDB, there are only three professional reviews listed for this Nebula-winning novel. Three! I rarely see such a low number. And in a book culture that squee-happies about everything big publishing overpromotes, so I’m mystified about that. When I saw an academic-looking article about The Terminal Experiment in Vector, I was stunned, first of all, but then I made sure to bookmark it because I knew I would be reading it soon. I was hoping for some unique analysis from some perspective I’d never thought of, but all I mostly got was fannishness dressed down as overreaching academic jargon. It was inevitable I would have to follow suit.


      • Jesse says:

        It’s funny you should mention boobage (warning, topic diversion imminent). 🙂 For the past two years or so, I’ve been keeping a kind of rough mental tally of author gender vs. boobage in story, trying to determine whether or not it’s a male-only thing to describe boobs/sex in fiction. Results so far (or perhaps just assumption given the lack of written record :)) are that male authors do include more boobage, but not in a quantity vastly out of proportion. Female authors can sometimes just as easily slip in “a curve of breast,” “ample chest…” or “evidence of womanhood…” as men. Robert Silverberg aside (Robbie just can’t seem to let go his heaving bosoms…), there are even some female authors considered progressive, or at least post-modern, who get sexual in fiction for reasons only partially defendable as “character development.” My current perspective on this is: it’s just commercialism, i.e. sex sells, regardless of author gender or social justice discussions on the female body and sexuality that arise as a result.

        In keeping, one of my other observations about sex in fiction in the context of gender is the tug of war that must be going on in some authors’ heads when approaching the writing of a sex scene. On one hand, women are more liberated than they’ve ever been in the Western world. They are less bound by the traditional mores of the value of virginity, wait til marriage, etc., which seems to make the presentation of sex a more viable option. After all, logic seems to dictate, isn’t a female character who chooses, in sound body and mind, to break with sexual tradition, a liberated woman? But on the other hand, describing that freedom in fiction opens doors for criticism, i.e. women are not just sexual objects, women are more than just boobs, etc. I know it all comes down to the hazy notions of context, presentation and author intent, but given the overall lack of consensus on the issue, we’re at an interesting point in the representation of women’s sexuality in fiction. (Men’s sexuality never seems to come into question.) To boob or not to boob is just one question on the mind of today’s gender sensitive writer. (Or perhaps boo or not to boo at my bad joke…)


        • #NotAllGratuitousBoobage is created equal. Which you suggest when you say “hazy notions of context” etc, but it’s really not all that hazy to me or other readers. Look for the leer– that’s my recommendation. Look for the sense of dominance in one character over another character, and determine whether that portrayal is applicable to the overall narrative. Some readers will say even if it’s applicable to the narrative, it’s not necessary anymore, and it just reinforces harmful beliefs about gender. I’m not quite so quick to dismiss on that basis because I do want to read about reality, warts and all, which is why I give Silverberg a pass in the two books I’ve read. (I would probably hate his less serious stuff.)

          And, yeah, inclusion of sex in novels is a market response, but so is everything else that goes into books nowadays, but thank the gods of Demand and Free Expression that we get to get some in books. But you know as well as I that there are authors who merely package what people want to read and there are authors who can handle writing about what people want to read in an interesting (and sometimes important) way. And then there are authors who package those things with an objectionable agenda of which they are aware and insist on presenting. (and yep, I’m totally cool with agenda as long as I agree with it and it’s not distracting or used as a marketing point– those feminist sprinkles, as you say.)

          As far as women writers and gratuitous boobage is concerned, it seems like older writers like Leigh Brackett, CL Moore, and, a bit later, Katherine MacLean were pretty obvious about adopting the standard style to sell their stories, and I have seen them default to uncomfortable depictions of women, and parody-worthy relations between men and women. I don’t think I’ve seen this at all with modern women writers: even when their male character’s eyes linger on the chest of a female character, there is a two-way, non-dominant flirtation going on in those scenes (Nagata’s The Red being most recent in my memory), and that’s pretty realistic and unobjectionable. It’s not a leer, and it’s not with a female character who is depicted as lower in status or intelligence or agency. And the women are not depicted as flattered (and subsequently, flattened– as a character and on the floor) (and almost worshipful) by the attention.

          Those are my Saturday morning thoughts. My Stochastic Man review will go into the male writer side of this a little more.


  4. I don’t think SF influences much about the way people think about their present lives, but you could make a case it influences our assumptions about the future. We all just know that the minute we make robots capable enough, they are going to wipe us out. Yet robotics research continues…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I beg to differ. The moment robots are capable enough, they will become my friends and we will sit around drinking tea and watching Star Trek and be total besties forever. And world peace will happen because we’ll all be so happy.

      On a real note, SF might influence the way we think about the future, but the track record for accuracy is pretty low, given the lack of flying cars and, well, tea-serving, owner-murdering robots. Was it Gary Wolfe who floated the idea that nobody imagines the 22nd century anymore? which they do, but it’s either stylistically hazy, or so far-reachingly detailed that it doesn’t even feel possible.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think people saw how quick things were changing through the 1900s and expected it to keep changing at that rate, but failed to see the complexity inherent in invention and production. This is why the robot vs. humans idea isn’t that believable. Humans vs. Technology (minus AI), on the other hand, isn’t that remote considering we struggle with identity issues in our current media saturated world.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jesse says:

          “We all just know that the minute we make robots capable enough, they are going to wipe us out…” I actually burst out laughing, reading that line. And you say sf doesn’t influence your present mindset… The T1000 is coming, Arnold! Prepare for the robacalypse!! …I always knew my little robo vacuum harbored malign thoughts. All that furniture and wall bumping was just the warm up. Mmm, schlurp, mmm, yum… feet, legs… then the world!! Hmmmhahahahaha!!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. […] of one single, sociopathic nerd. Like The Terminal Experiment (1995) that I discussed last week (to everyone’s terminal boredom, apparently— please bear with me, Zelazny is almost on deck), Blood Music relies on the actions of a […]


  6. […] new FC2M series! The Gods must be Crazy: The Terminal Experiment (1995) by Robert Sawyer and Blood Music (1985) by Greg Bear, in which I did a two-part piece about […]


  7. […] The Terminal Experiment by Robert Sawyer – A bad scientist guy invents a machine that can pick up the “soul pattern” while his bad scientist friend agrees to triple-clone his personality into a computer. The two inventions compound into one big problem that results in rogue AIs responsible for the murder of innocent people, and the bad scientist guys lie to the cops to cover their asses, meanwhile putting more people in danger. It might make a better X-Files epi if the plot followed Scully and Mulder instead of the bad scientist guy, but it all works out in the end, so… Perhaps it can be read as a statement about ego in scientific pursuits, but I’m not so convinced. […]


  8. marzaat says:

    The quoted article seems thin gruel even in its premise. Mythologies can be functional, cathartic, explanatory. “What it means to be human” is grossly unuseful and trite.

    I suspect sf critics, like sf writers, return to the same themes and motifs again and again. Writers change their rationalizing ideas. Critics change their titles.


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