Review: The Terminal Experiment

3 stars
You say mind uploading and I say AI, let's call the whole thing off

I was 16 years old when The Terminal Experiment by Robert Sawyer was published in 1995. This was the time when the Internet was starting to break into the mainstream, and everyone was trying their hands at predicting its impact. In Newsweek that year, Clifford Stoll famously wrote:

The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

How does a Nebula-winning sci-fi novel from 1995 about mind uploading, artificial intelligence, and morality hold up in 2021? In the case of The Terminal Experiment: not too well.

Sawyer’s vision of the 2000s and 2010s is, unavoidably, a mix of correct predictions (e-readers are commonplace), false extrapolations (CompuServe seems as important as the Internet) and unlucky guesses (instead of buying a newspaper, print it on demand!). But more than its future past, the book’s story will challenge any reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Soul search

The protagonist, Peter Hobson, is a Canadian biomedical engineer who has devised highly sensitive brain scanning equipment (a “superEEG”) to determine the exact moment of a person’s death. But the superEEG picks up something else: a pattern of brain activity—an electrical field—that leaves the human body after its death.

Has Hobson found evidence for life after death, and if so, what’s the nature of this afterlife? If given a choice between physical immortality or the hereafter, which should we prefer? It’s a timely question in Hobson’s world, as a California firm called “Life Unlimited” has begun marketing nanotech life extension techniques that promise practical immortality for all intents and purposes.

Luckily, Hobson’s best friend Sarkar Muhammed is an AI expert who has also tried his hand at mind uploading using Hobson’s brain scanning equipment. It’s still an experimental technique, of course, but Hobson volunteers to have three copies (simulations or “sims”) of his mind created:

  • an unmodified copy (the control);

  • a mind that perceives itself to be immortal but still human;

  • a mind that perceives itself to be a disembodied spirit, with no worldly concerns.

The friends’ scientific inquiry is disrupted when one of the sims appears to commit a grisly murder. Hobson and Muhammed find themselves in a race with the police to find out what happened, and which of the sims (if any) is responsible. Can the two plucky Canadians solve the mystery and prevent further killings?

Philosophy first

I’ll spare you any spoilers, but honestly, it would be hard to spoil the book—the major plot points are fairly predictable, and I say that as someone who is probably more oblivious to such things than the average reader.

The Terminal Experiment puts its philosophical premise above everything else (plot, characters, worldbuilding). Even its protagonist, Peter Hobson, is named for Hobson’s Choice, which relates to the book’s central premise. (In case you didn’t guess that, the book helpfully tells you so, repeatedly.)

The conversations Hobson and Muhammed have with the three copies of Hobson’s mind are the most engaging part of The Terminal Experiment. I found Spirit in particular (the copy that imagines itself to be in a kind of afterlife) to be the book’s most interesting character.

Because it explores some interesting philosophical questions, Sawyer’s book is not without merits, but if you had it in your backlog for a while, I wouldn’t recommend it for anything other than a lazy afternoon or a long plane trip.