Ace (US), SFWRITER.com via Kindle (UK)
How much of our true selves do we reveal to other people – and, come to that, how well do we know ourselves and what we’re capable of?
Robert J. Sawyer’s first new novel in three years is his familiar enjoyable blend of science-based extrapolation, strong characterisation, plot twists, philosophical treatise, pop culture references, bad jokes and high stakes, which I suspect will increase the sales of many of the texts the author quotes in his afterword, since it’s an eye-opening look into our understanding of human consciousness (pun, for those who’ve read the book, fully intended). It’s a subject Sawyer has tackled before – there’s even a fun throwaway line about the FlashForward TV show – but he comes at it from a very different angle on this occasion.
There’s quite a lot of groundwork that he needs to establish up front so that the reader can understand the basic argument of the story, and while this occasionally becomes a little heavy going, you don’t necessarily need to follow all the science involved – as the book progresses, it becomes clear what’s at stake, and how it ties into not just the lives of the characters, but also people in the “real” world. (I’m assuming Sawyer isn’t anticipating an invitation to the Russian Federation Embassy in Ottawa any time soon – although given the news reports at present, I’m just starting to wonder if Sawyer’s publicity tour is cover for something else…!)
For the most part, the story is told first-person, but in light of the subject matter, calling Jim Manchuk an “unreliable narrator” is something of an understatement. The other sections in third-person, notably the flashback sequences, allow Sawyer to throw the reader some real curveballs in terms of how we assess not just Manchuk but those around him. There’s likely to be at least one moment where you kick yourself for not realising just how successfully characters and author have led you to believe something that couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s Sawyer’s most blatantly Canadian book – there’s a considerable amount of detail about the locations in which it’s set. It’s not a paean of praise to his home country, however; in places it’s an almost forensic examination of the cultural and political differences between Canada and its neighbour, which become highly relevant to the book’s third act. The various philosophical discussions that underpin the first two acts are equally important to the denouement; Sawyer reinforces the differing sides of the arguments regarding utilitarianism with deftly chosen pop culture references (Star Trek II unsurprisingly turning up in this, alongside a savage dismissal of its sequel!) as well as through his characters.
At its core, Sawyer’s novel is about the thin line between good and evil, and how behaviour that is sometimes dismissed as “out of character” may have very strong underlying causes. There are some quite frightening concepts mooted with regard to the number and nature of psychopaths around us all, which equally unsurprisingly references Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. I do wonder if some people will start to question their own behaviour in light of this – which demonstrates the strength of Sawyer’s writing: there were times it was so convincing I had to remind myself this was science fiction, and that not every test in the novel is genuine!
However I don’t want to give the impression that this is a book where the plot is simply something on which the author has hung a philosophical debate. As with all Sawyer’s best novels (of which this is one), the discussions come out of the plot and character development, and there are many taut action sequences that will have you powering through the pages – but it is the concepts at its heart that will reverberate through your thoughts for some time to come.
Verdict: Another thought-provoking and tense novel from a master science fiction writer. 9/10