Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Triggers a good idea with poor execution

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CANADIAN sci-fi novelist Robert J. Sawyer's novel Flashforward spawned an ABC TV series, and it wouldn't be surprising if Triggers did the same: like some of his best works, Triggers seems halfway to being a script already, with episode-like point-of-view shifts that lead to a big, if predictable, reveal in the final act. Ultimately, though, it remains somewhat shallow, even by the standards of TV dramas.

At its heart, science fiction is about "what if?" and gives the author a chance to explore the knock-on effects of even a minor step forward in technology. Sawyer is very good indeed at coming up with interesting "what if?" scenarios and exploring in particular the social consequences of his plot device.

The central question of Triggers is "what would happen if one person could experience another's consciousness?" The book starts with a freak occurrence in a hospital that causes those nearby to swap minds for an instant. It's not just memories or facts that are involved, but subjective feelings, impressions and emotions. To raise the stakes further, the U.S. president, a number of his secret service personnel, a potential assassin, a soldier suffering from PTSD and some less than scrupulous hospital staff are included in this event.

It's a fascinating jumping off point for exploring identity and perception, and Sawyer sets up some very interesting situations. If you knew another person's secrets and desires, you could manipulate and defeat them easily -- but if you had felt their feelings, and grasped not only their worldview but also the events that shaped them, would you still seek to do so, or would your empathy and understanding take priority? Are there any truly odious people, or are there simply people so scarred and damaged that they seem so? What transgressions are forgivable if you understand the tensions that drove them? In this sense, Sawyer, as usual, does sci-fi extremely well.

The problem, as with some of his other books, is in his characters. It's not so much that his characters are one-dimensional as that they are caricatures, and poorly fleshed-out at that. The cast includes an inner-city ghetto kid who joined the army as his only way out of poverty; a cynical Republican who feigns religiosity to get elected; a frustrated single woman who salivates at the mention of an eligible professional; a nurse who secretly steals and uses narcotics. These aren't just stock characters, they're lifted straight from prime-time television. The novel and interesting concept of the book is significantly diminished because it's animated by ciphers, not complex people.

What makes this so frustrating is that Sawyer is capable of populating his work with rounded, unusual and thoughtful characters, but (seemingly) only as long as they're not human. His earlier works include a trilogy in which intelligent dinosaurs discover the principles of heliocentric solar systems, evolution, and Freudian psychology; another set in a parallel Earth where Neanderthals never died out; and most recently, a series that postulates the development of an independent intelligence in the worldwide web. In all of these books, the characters were richly imagined and complex, and in the first two trilogies, the world building was provocative and convincing.

Triggers will appeal to sci-fi readers who don't mind settling for a neat idea that could be executed better, and Sawyer's fans will find the novel serviceable, even though it's not his best work. But it's very much a book for sci-fi readers, unlike some of his previous books which were interesting and surprising enough to rise above genre categories and limits.


Rebecca Walberg is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 J9

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