Factoring Humanity

Reviewed: February 27, 2004
By: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: TOR Books
350 pages, $7.99

If there’s a pattern that Robert J. Sawyer is following in constructing his novels it would have to be in the way he successfully combines the mundane with the cosmic. There is always a scientific basis to the plots of his books. In that sense he is what those in the field tend to think of as a “hard-sf” writer. But, regardless of what insights in genetics, space travel, human-alien relations or other BIG IDEA kind of thing there may be in a Sawyer novel, there is also a human story.

The BIG story in Factoring Humanity is that aliens have been sending us indecipherable messages for the last decade. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project finally bore fruit, but there’s been no way for us to taste it. Someone out near Alpha Centuri has been trying to talk to us, and we can’t figure out what they’re saying. The first eleven pages were clear enough, but everything after that seems to be gibberish.

We follow the life of one Heather Davis, whose career has been devoted to attempting to decode the 2,841 messages (a new one every 30 hours and 51 minutes) that have been received over the ten years.

If this wasn’t enough to occupy a scientist’s mind, there are problems in the Davis family. Heather and Kyle have been separated for about a year, a separation caused by the suicide of their daughter, Mary. Now, all of a sudden, their remaining daughter, Rebecca, requests a meeting with both of them, and turns up at the house with her protective boyfriend to accuse Kyle of having sexually molested both daughters and having triggered the breakdown that led to Mary’s suicide. Her note, “This is the only way I can stay silent” seems to confirm Rebecca’s accusation.

The point of view in the book moves back and forth between Heather and Kyle, so we’re never left in any doubt as to his guilt or innocence. He didn’t do it. The more pressing questions are, ‘Why does Rebecca think he did?’ and ‘How can he prove it?’

Right about then, without any warning, the alien transmission ceases. What does that mean? Is the length of the message part of the message? Have they stopped sending because we haven’t responded?

You might be wondering how these seemingly unrelated events come together. If I said too much more, I would be giving away the game. Let me say that there is a superficial resemblance between this book and Carl Sagan’s Contact, but this is more apparent than actual. The resemblance probably comes from the fact that it is Heather who is working on the alien transmission puzzle. The solution to the alien message also provides her with a solution to the family’s personal dilemma, one that is quite clever and based on the BIG idea in the novel.

Kyle’s work is in the creation of artificial intelligence, something Sawyer used rather chillingly in The Terminal Experiment. Kyle’s creation is a computer whose thought processes may remind you a bit of Data on Star Trek: the Next Generation. Cheetah is trying very hard to understand human emotions, and one of his/its experiments in this direction lead it to telling bad jokes and experimenting with puns.

Sawyer has also addressed a very real, down to earth problem as well. Child abuse and the complications created by the repressed memory/false memory debate are very much part of the current discussion in these areas. Only recently a couple in the prairies were cleared of charges brought against them by a provincial social services department, based on testimony that later proved to be false.

With fourteen novels and a short story collection to his credit, Rob Sawyer is one of Canada’s busier and more successful genre writers. he even picked up the annual Hugo Award at last fall’s World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto for his later novel, Hominids.

Rob visited the Yukon two years ago, and more recently offered long distance assistance to a science fiction course being offered at Yukon College.