When biomedical engineering student Peter Hobson saw his first organ harvesting he was profoundly disquieted - the responses to pain that the staff dismissed as autonomic looked real to him. Peter decided to design an instrument that could unambiguously determine when a person was really dead, by detecting the last neurones firing. He was unprepared to discover what became known as the 'soul wave' - a distinct field of electrical activity that moved across the brain and exited the skull.
In the aftermath of the disclosure of his findings, Hobson decides to explore another aspect of the mind. With the aid of a computer scientist and friend, Hobson creates three AI versions of his brain, all complete copies in every detail except that one has all bodily feedback (like hunger, tiredness and miscellaneous aches) removed, and one has all fears of aging, disability and death pared away; the third creation is left intact as a control. Not long after they're booted up, people begin to die and Hobson realises with horror that it's one of the versions of himself.
One of the things that sets Sawyer's work apart from the mainstream of fiction generally is his ability to combine multiple, significant elements into his work. The Terminal Experiment is an SF mystery but it's also a cultural and philosophical exploration that examines marital relationships, jealousy and revenge, the nature of humour, and human psychology.
Sawyer has explored some of these themes in other works, but he always manages to achieve a fresh perspective and unique voice. This, combined with his strength in narrative structure, means that reading several of his novels is succession is as rewarding an experience as reading them separated over time. His plots are fresh and layered, his characters three dimensional and believable, and the pace is both brisk and considered.
There are a couple of slightly dated passages dealing with HIV/AIDS on one occasion and AV technology on another, but as the book was published in 1995 this is understandable, and otherwise The Terminal Experiment has well and truly stood the test of time. - Alex