Monday, November 30, 2009

Good Speculative Fiction Author/Bad Futurist!

My light entertainment reading for the weekend was The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer. The story is pretty good; I am nearly finished and have really enjoyed it so far.

In short, the story is about Dr. Peter Hobson, who invents a machine that detects a brain pattern that leaves the body after death, a pattern many believe is a soul. There is also a company that is selling immortality by way of nano-technology.

In order to test his theories on immortality and life after death, Dr. Peter Hobson, with his friend Sarkar Muhammed, create three electronic simulations of Hobson's own personality. When people Hobson had a grudge against begin to die, he and Sarkar must try to find out which is responsible. But all three, two modified, one a "control", escape Sarkar's computer, into a worldwide electronic matrix.

As an adventure in speculative fiction, it is pretty good. (Though I think that I have figured-out the ending and thing that I knew the “who-dunnit” of the story from a pretty early point in the book.) As a predictive work, it leaves something to be desired.

Sawyer is a good story teller, but he is no George Orwell. 1984 was scary in its accuracy of what was to come; the use of the media to control the opinion of the masses, two-way video conferencing, widespread usage of video surveillance, a government spying on its own people. As a predictive work, it shone in the number of things that would be possible in the 36 years between its creation and the year it was set in.

By contrast, The Terminal Experiment, is set in 2011 and was released in 1995 – a difference of 16 years. (Though, to be fair, the idea was first serialized as Hobson’s Choice in Analog magazine a few months earlier.

While he predicts that by next year the web will be everywhere, that people will spend inordinate amounts of time in virtual reality locales on the web (Can you say World of Warcraft and Second Life?), and that computers will be in every home, taking-on a number of the basic tasks for automating the minutia of running a home.

The things he misses, however are so obvious that they are laughable. Hobson and his wife are often depicted reading things that look suspiciously like the Kindle which is good! But, they have to load the books and magazines they read on them by inserting a disc.

They watch television via time shifting, but they still do it on a video-tape recorder. Does anyone still use video tape? Sure, I time shift everything, but I have a DVR and On-Demand.

The email programs they use would have been more likely to have been set in the mid-nineties; they are clunky and completely text-based. (They refer at one point to having to fax a picture to someone that was referred to in an email. Why not just embed the picture?)

There is one cool idea, it never happened, though it could have easily been done years ago. The papers that Dr. Hobson reads while waiting for a meeting to start were bought at a smart box vendor. He puts in a couple loonies (Canadian Dollars – the book is set in Ontario) and the paper prints-out with up-to-date news on-demand.

Of course, the time for this is passed and gone, but had something like this been in place years ago, the newspapers may have staved off their eventual deaths a while longer.

On the whole, though, despite the humorously short-sited view of the future, it is still a good read and I recommend it! It was a nice way to pass a couple days of a nice long holiday weekend.

Wherever you are today, I hope that you’ve had a nice weekend!

Don Bergquist – November 30, 2009 – Lakewood, Colorado, USA

Editor's Note:

Having finished the book, I have to add to my original post. The author (while still telling a good story - I do not mean to detract from the story!) has missed the point (or displayed a lack of knowledge of) Moore's Law. The basic premise is that that computer hardware gets twice as fast every two years.

This has implications in everything from how fast graphics will render to your screen to how fast and good compression of data will be for transmission. In one scene of the book the author discusses how data travels around the internet (though he does not use this term) and how the swift movement of data is hindered by the limitation of passing it over a telephone line. He totally missed the advent of high-speed data transmission via broadband, fibre optic, etc.

Ah well... it was still a good story!


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