Sunday, June 22

Factoring Humanity - Robert J Sawyer

Psychology professor Heather Davis has been part of the team trying to decode the signal that's been coming in from Alpha Centauri, one encrypted message every thirty-one hours, since 2007. in the decade since the first message arrived Heather's life's changed a lot - her daughters grew up, her older daughter committed suicide, and the subsequent strain resulted in separation for Heather and husband Kyle, an AI expert also at the University of Toronto. Becky hasn't seen her parents for a while but tonight has asked to meet them at the family home, where she'll bring her boyfriend. Confident Becky and Zach will be announcing their engagement, Heather is shocked when she instead accuses Kyle of sexually abusing her as a child. Though Heather wants to believe Kyle, she has to be sure, and in utilising her nervous energy Heather has a breakthrough with the alien data, a breakthrough that not only changes the way people interact with one another but also allows her to know the truth about Kyle, Becky, and why Mary killed herself.
As always Sawyer elevates fantasy/science fiction beyond an involving yarn by incorporating greater issues and layers of meaning. In addition to the first contact plot, which is in itself tackled creatively, he has woven in:
- well developed and normal people, whose lives extend beyond the boundaries of the book
- the selective and fickle nature of memory
- an exploration of repressed memories and the criticisms of the repressed memory movement
- the dangers and benefits of therapy and licensing of therapists
- sexual misconduct in academia, the damage of false accusations to careers, and the need for protection
- the search for extraterrestrial life and imaginings of how this might differ from, and be similar to, us
- artificial intelligence, the quest for a designed intelligence that can pass the Turing test, and the nature of humanity
- the nature of consciousness
- loyalty conflicts between ones' spouse and ones' child, parent-child relationships in adulthood, and marital relations
- suicide and suicidality
- linguistics and Chomskian theories of language development
- the nature of reality and how we perceive it, and
- maths, physics and the fourth dimension.
It is an indication of how comprehensively intertwined these themes are that, as I read the book I didn't notice the panoply of levels and strands. Like some of the best writing around, it is only on reflection, when moving past the first layer of plot, that these are evident. Some of these themes are explored in other Sawyer novels, and there are certainly some strongly recurring concepts (most evident when glutting on his collected works, as I am at present), but each new approach at exploration brings a fresh perspective.
One of my favourite examples I use to illustrate the way our memories are faulty, though we believe them unimpeachable, and the complex history of sibling and family relationships, comes from Factoring Humanity - when going through long-lost photos Heather finds pictures of Mary's fifth birthday and is wounded anew by the memory of her sister blowing the party of for a business meeting, only to discover, when turning the album pages, that Doreen came after all, and what Heather had been resentfully remembering was her sister's initial inability to come, something she would never discuss with her sister because it was petty. I've used this example of how we remember things differently from one another for several years, without remembering (!) this was the source.
And for those who think linguistics is dull, ponder this - how do we all agree that "big red ball" is correct and "red big ball" isn't? Chomsky thinks grammatical rules like this are hardwired, and Sawyer comes up with a theory for how this could be so.
All in all, much to think about, and all of it carried along by a fast-paced and involving plot, with strong and fallible characters. Sawyer really ought to be far more widely known than he is. - Alex

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