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  Bookends: Dan Davidson


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 output.

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 really isn't.

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 Hugo Award.

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