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  • TITLE: The Terminal Experiment
  • AUTHOR: Robert J. Sawyer
  • AWARDS: Nebula, for best novel; short-listed for Hugo

In the 1950 film noir thriller DOA , Edmond O'Brien enters a police station and says, “I'd like to report a murder.” The desk sergeant inquires, “who?” Straightfaced, O'Brien replies, “my own.”

Sawyer essentially uses the same opening in this novel, then goes into backstory. But this is Science Fiction, not the Hard-Boiled Detective genre, and the device has about as much snap as a worn-out fedora brim. The ensuing tale doesn't help much, either. It's all about electronic simulacrums going bad, murder bad. There's a lot of tekkie-babble about nanotechnology, neural nets, soulwaves and NDE (near-death experience), VR libraries, etc. There's also a token amount of philio-religious ponderings about OBE (out-of-body experience), the existence of Soul, and the ethics of medical-scientific experimentation. Then there's the sub-plots of marriage infidelity, daughter-father relationships, and anal retention.

It all seems to be there, but just arranged and delivered poorly. The writing is quasi-thriller style with absolutely no poetic nuance. For example, “As the urinary pressure gave Peter a typical early-morning erection, he realized something else” (Harper Prism, BCE, ISBN 0061053104, c.1995, p.72). Dr. Peter Hobson, our hero, is hard to mentally snuggle with, and all the other characters are as bland and basic as white sheets. Here's some dialogue between the wife Cathy and her Psychiatrist:


“We have to do something about your self-esteem, Cathy. We have to make you realize that you deserve to be treated with respect.”

Cathy's voice was small. “But I don't . . . “

Danita let out a slow, whispery sigh. “We've got our work cut out for us.”

--Ibid, p.62


See what I mean?

Sawyer even makes the always-questionable choice to pepper his story with cultural trivia. Even more unfortunate is that it is not very interesting or unusual trivia. Who played who in TV's Perry Mason series? Star Trek quotes from Dr. McCoy. The phenomenal intellectual depth of Parker's Spencer character. Or, the excitement over taping (yes, he uses a VCR) The Night Stalker or Welles' The Stranger . One wonders if the members of the Nebula Awards banquet felt they were on the Titanic instead of the Queen Mary drydocked in Long Beach that night they handed this novel its “best of” prize.

After telling his tale, O'Brien in DOA goes facedown on the police chief's desk. The top cop slams a rubber stamp onto his file with heavy finality. The camera zooms in. “DOA”, it reads.

I don't know if Sawyer completed his bookending device. I don't even know if the deadly doppelganger got out of the computer or if he performed his dastardly deeds from the worldwide virtual matrix. I quit at page 157 out of 333.

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