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Robert Sawyer

Christina Molendyk/Handout

Robert Sawyer's body of work, though it covers a myriad of subjects, is uniformly optimistic in tone. That shows through in the ideologies he posits. His latest novel, Triggers, slides comfortably into that body of work, optimistic while attempting to address an inordinate number of social and racial issues. The only difference is that Triggers is less a novel than a polemic stretched over the framework of a plot vaguely reminiscent of a season of 24.

Indeed, the plot is almost an afterthought, and simple enough: In a climate of political tension and terrorism, there is an assassination attempt, in Washington, on the U.S. president, who is rushed to the same hospital where an experimental operation to relieve the traumatic experiences of an Iraq War vet is being performed. While the president is undergoing surgery, and the experiment is under way, a terrorist explosive device is detonated, destroying the White House and vastly altering both the parameters and effect of the experiment. The resulting surge links 20 or so people, each of whom can now access the memories of another in the link in daisy-chain fashion.

That sets up the thriller portion of the plot, because now someone has access to the president's memories, and, more important, knowledge of the United States' coming (horrific) counterstrike against the terrorist elements. But it is the humanitarian interactions – the gradual understanding of others through shared memory, or relived experiences – that is the real basis of the novel and echoes what we might call the singularity narrative.

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Simply put, the technological singularity has to do with machine intelligence, technological immortality (both human and machine) and, if you go far enough down the line, a discussion of noospheres, the sum total of information and human knowledge available to people. What Sawyer has proposed is a human singularity – a form of non-technological gestalt consciousness – that functions like an extrapolation of the unified political state.

In that context, Triggers represents an idealized utopian vision. And therein lies my problem with it. I'm immensely distrustful of any utopia, because by definition the utopian vision is one of stagnation, not progression. In a utopia, there is no dissent, which is the single function crucial to any movement of change.

Sawyer was very clearly aiming for an uplifting vision of global consciousness joined in hope, and universal unfettered good intention going forward. But the problem lies in the method Sawyer's solution takes; the same problem every other singularity narrative has.

The notion of a world where the individual ceases to matter in order to enact a unified order (no matter how glorious) chills me to the marrow. Despite Sawyer's good intentions, I cannot agree that ceasing to be the essence of what makes us human is the route to global peace or world happiness. Because you don't have to dig too deep into the past to see which road the kind of rhetoric that espouses giving up one's humanity to be a part of a greater society takes us down.

So read the book for its humanitarian basis – there's enough here, divvied up between technological and humanitarian aspects, to make reading the book worthwhile – but keep in mind Orwell's central thesis: Dehumanization is not the answer to the world's problems. It is the problem.

Michael Matheson is a Toronto writer, editor, reviewer and some-time lecturer.

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