Books: Triggers

I’ve read a number of science fiction books over the years that deal with the idea of being able to read someone else’s mind. Triggers uses a different approach than the others, where one person gets to know another person’s memories rather than his thoughts. But considering that your thoughts about what you are experiencing right now will be in your memories within a very short period of time, it can amount to nearly the same thing.

This is the first book I have read by Robert Sawyer, and I don’t plan for it to be the last. In the past two weeks I’ve also read books by Jack Higgins and Orson Scott Card, and while they were moderately entertaining, I felt I would not have missed out on anything by not reading them. Sawyer’s book, on the other hand, gave me something to think about.

What would it be like to have access to someone else’s memories? If you’re one of the characters in this book, you suddenly found yourself in possession of memories that are not your own, and in most cases they turn out to belong to someone you never met before – and perhaps would not want to know. Meanwhile, someone else now has your memories (it is not a reciprocal arrangement).

One set of characters likes the arrangement. Imagine what it would be like to be in a close relationship with someone who really understood your thoughts and feelings. There would be no more misunderstandings because you couldn’t explain yourself well enough, or because your past experiences caused you to have a different perspective (since the other person would know all about those experiences also).

Most of those affected find it very unpleasant, however. We have enough pain of our own to deal with in life – who wants to have to deal with someone else’s as well (especially when it’s not someone you chose to include in your life)? What do you do with memories that keep coming back to traumatic moments earlier in life? The title of the book refers to those triggers – smells, sounds, sights, perhaps the mention of a single word in a different context – that make memories come flooding into our minds whether we want them or not.

What if you knew someone had committed some terrible act, but there was no proof – except in that person’s memory, and now yours? Would you have the right – or duty – to make it known to others? What if you found yourself in possession of a memory that the other person couldn’t even consciously remember (because you had encountered the trigger but the person whose memory it was had not)?

Of course, those questions are all hypothetical as long as this remains in the domain of science fiction. The initial experiment on one person’s memory has some theoretical basis, but linking one person to another’s memories does not. Even in the novel, the scientist who is an expert on memory has no explanation how it could happen. I had expected that somehow by the end it would be explained – with at least some semblance of plausibility – but it is not.

The ending was actually fairly disappointing. [Stop reading here if you don’t want to know anything about it.] I don’t know if Sawyer found himself stuck on how to resolve the whole situation, or if he planned it that way from the start, but I did not care for it at all. Throughout the book, there had been some balance between the positive and negative consequences of one person’s memories/thoughts being laid wide open to another person. Then at the end, suddenly the negative consequences are negligible and the positive consequences are all that matters.

In spite of that, I do still plan on reading another of Sawyer’s books. Besides the whole issue of memories, his novel poses other questions worth thinking about, such as what is the appropriate response to terrorist attacks. That is the kind of book I really enjoy – one that both tells a good story and makes one think about things that matter.

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