Books: Frameshift

December 4, 2012

A reader review of one of Robert Sawyer’s other novels commented that Frameshift is probably his best book so far. Having read it now, I am inclined to agree. The main characters are well-developed, believable, and make you care about them. The science fiction scenarios are also believable – so much so that I’m not sure exactly where the science ends and the science fiction starts.

The scientific focus in Frameshift is on genetics. Pierre Tardivel is a geneticist, doing research to discover the function of “junk DNA.” His concern with genetics is more than professional, however, as he learns as a young man that his biological father has Huntington’s disease, and that there is a 50% chance he also has the defective gene that will end his life early – and cause serious problems even sooner.

(One kind of mutation that Tardivel studies is a frameshift, hence the title. A frameshift is “a mutation that occurs when one or two nucleotides are added or deleted, with the result that every codon beyond the point of insertion or deletion is read incorrectly during translation.” Pierre’s wife apparently has a frameshift mutation which results in her being able to read minds (if the other person is in close proximity to her). Her telepathic power plays a significant role in the plot, but it is not central.)

In many ways, the book is as much about ethics as it is about genetics. Is it a good thing to get genetic testing that tells what conditions you are likely to develop – or pass on to your children?  Is it right for an insurance company to be able to deny coverage based on the results of genetic testing? How should society treat people who are “defective” in one way or another? What are the appropriate limits of experimentation regarding human genetics?

At the time Sawyer wrote the book, the issue of insurance companies denying coverage based on genetic testing was – I am guessing – a contentious issue. (I don’t remember now whether I was aware of debates over the issue at the time.) But since then, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act has gone into effect, providing (as best as I understand it) the protection that Tardivel argues for in Sawyer’s novel.

Sawyer also devotes a significant chunk of the novel to efforts to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals – men who callously and cruelly destroyed the lives of those they considered inferior – often based on attributes that are genetically determined, whether or not the Nazis knew or cared about the role of genetics. How well that major subplot fits into the novel as a whole I’m not sure, but as usual I learned something from reading about it.

Ultimately, though, the book is even more about people than it is about science or ethics, which is why I liked it so much. In some of Sawyer’s books, I found the science fascinating but not the people, as though the characters were just there to enable Sawyer to convey his ideas. In Frameshift, I really cared what happened to the people (well, at least the good guys), and for me that’s what makes a really good book.

Books: The Neanderthal Parallax

November 9, 2012

Having previously enjoyed Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, I tackled his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy over the past two weeks. Like Sawyer’s other science fiction, these novels are based on real science, however speculative some of it may be. As in the WWW trilogy, one of these areas of speculation is the origin of consciousness.

In the WWW trilogy, the theory that is explored posits a relatively recent origin of consciousness, less than three millennia ago. In this trilogy, it is set about 40,000 years ago, and is thought to be the result of a collapse and subsequent reestablishment of the earth’s magnetic field. Along with consciousness and therefore conscious choices came the first split between parallel universes.

As chance would have it (this being based on quantum theory), in our universe, it was our ancestors who developed consciousness. In the parallel universe, it was those we call Neanderthals. Our own ancestors, in that universe, failed to develop consciousness and subsequently died our, presumably (according to Neanderthal scientists) due to lower intelligence, our cranial capacity not allowing for as large a brain.

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Books: WWW Trilogy

August 7, 2012

I won’t say that Robert Sawyer is my new favorite author – that’s still Dean Koontz. But Sawyer is now my favorite science fiction author. His WWW Trilogy (Wake, Watch, and Wonder) is thought-provoking, full of real science as well as science fiction, and just plain good story-telling.

The trilogy chronicles the emergence of a conscious mind that somehow exists in the infrastructure of the World Wide Web.Because it has all the resources of the Web at its disposal, it has capabilities humans – and human governments – can only dream of. People use the internet to collaborate, but their efforts are puny next to a “being” that can instantaneously access any and all data of all kinds residing on any computer anywhere in the world so long as it is connected to the internet.

The question is whether such a being will use its vast power in ways that will help or hurt human beings. Because it is not localized in any particular part of the Web, it cannot be controlled.  Without risking devastating effects on the worldwide network of computers that are essential to commerce today, it cannot be removed. But some people think such a powerful non-human intelligence is so dangerous that it is worth the risk involved in destroying it.

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Books: Triggers

July 18, 2012

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).

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