Reviewed: June 29, 2005
By: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: TOR Books
302 pages, $34.95
Twenty-seven years before most of this
novel takes place Jake Sullivan had a memorable argument with his father,
one which ended in his dad's collapse from Katerinsky's syndrome. Burst blood
vessels had sprayed his brain with blood and left him a vegetable. The condition
was congenital, and Jake spent the next quarter century expecting to die young.
In 2045 Jake is older than his dad
had been when he had his attack, and has so far survived. What has changed
is that he can now escape the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. He
can have his consciousness copied and inserted in the artificial mind of a
robot version of himself, a being with no physical flaws which can expect
to live indefinitely. Immortex, Inc. guarantees it.
There are a few wrinkles. The flesh
and blood original person does not die in the process, but loses all rights
of personhood and lives out the rest of his or her days (most of the applicants
are quite old) in a posh retirement settlement on the far side of the moon.
The majority of these aptly named "shed skins" are content with
their lot, but not necessarily all of them.
Of course, there are actually two versions
of the person existing from the moment of duplication. Clients go into this
process expecting it to be the solution to their problems but, subjectively,
nothing happens to the original person with the problem. His or her psyche
may go on, but he or she doesn't, and that can create a host of problems.
It's no trouble for the elderly and
infirm, who expect to be gone shortly anyway, but it can be a problem if the
person is younger and a cure is suddenly developed for the ailment which prompted
the decision. Then the person's whole attitude about the process might change.
If the family of the uploaded person
is unable or unwilling to accept the replacement person, then other problems
might arise, problems personal, financial and legal.
In Mindscan, for instance, Karen
Bessarian, the author of a phenomenal series of young adult SF novels about
a dinosaur world, decides to upload from her stroke ridden flesh form and
become an immortal author who can retain indefinite control of her literary
Her son objects strongly to the whole
process, and once his mother's physical original body dies at High Eden on
the Moon, he launches a lawsuit, in the US of course, to contest the validity
of the process and prove the the artificial person who claims to be his mother
This leads to one of Sawyer's favorite
subplots, a court sequence with lots of legal arguments. Such a setting also
provides a logical place for the placement of a lot of expository material,
as various experts are brought in to testify about the nature of consciousness
and the difference between copied and artificial intelligence.
Sawyer doesn't neglect the new world
of the mindscans either. How do you adjust to not needing to eat, sleep or
rest? In bodies which do not have a full range of sensory input, what do you
miss most? What do the designers of the new bodies decide are the most important
features for the new immortals to possess? How do you deal with potential
rejection by all those you still hold dear, including the family pets?
All of these elements make this a complex
tale, narrated to us by the two Jakes, variations on the single theme of the
original fellow who starts the story for us. Both Jakes are sufficiently interesting
characters that we care about what happens to them and wonder how their stories
will turn out.
Mindscan is an enjoyable novel
full of ideas and interesting situations. Sawyer always leavens his seriousness
with some humour and manages to impart a lot of information without making
it seem too much like a lecture.
“Shed Skin” the short story in which
Sawyer first explored this idea, is on the nominations list for this year’s