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Triggers
Robert J. Sawyer
Gollancz paperback £14.99

review by Paul F. Cockburn

Privacy in our social-media-dominated world is either dismissed as 'so last century' or held onto for dear life by those increasingly suspicious of what Facebook and Twitter - never mind our elected governments - are doing with the personal information we unthinkingly provide. But what if you could share the thoughts and memories of someone else? What would privacy mean then? And what if, intentionally or not, the person you were sharing thoughts with turned out to be the President of the United States of America? Wouldn't that be the ultimate security breach?

This is the initial big idea at the heart of Triggers by Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer - a man who, given how many major literary awards he's won over the years, you'd think would have his name bigger on the cover. It's the near future, and in a hospital in Washington DC, a medical experiment designed to erase a war veteran's traumatic memories goes awry thanks to the electromagnetic pulse from a highly powerful terrorist bomb that destroys the White House. As a result, a random group of people within the hospital can suddenly access each other's minds; including, it's soon realised, US President Seth Jerrison, who nearly died on one of the hospital's operating table following an assassination attempt at the Lincoln Memorial.

Much of the novel is therefore taken up with security service officer Susan Dawson's attempt to discover who, out of nearly two dozen people, has access to the President's memories. It's a task that proves more difficult than expected, not least because some of those affected by the experiment are lying for personal advantage. All told, much of the early part of the novel is powered by this interesting enough reworking of the old spy hunt game, not least because Sawyer firmly keeps within his self-imposed framework.

Yet, while his ultimate solution to 'who is reading the President?' might strike some as a disappointment - a cheat, even - it undoubtedly flags up what really lies at the heart of the novel - questions about what a total lack of privacy would really mean for human relationships and society as a whole. For, while some characters look for simple financial reward from their mind-shares, others grow personally from gaining a genuine understanding of what it's like to be in another person's shoes. One couple even threaten legal action against the hospital if they dare to reverse the process, so enamoured have the pair become with sharing every intimate thought with the person they love.

This is a tight, lightly written novel. Characters are revealed chiefly through their thoughts and actions, rather than any in depth authorial description - "thirty-four, with pale skin and pale blue eyes" is all we're initially told about Susan Dawson's appearance, for example - but this builds up sufficiently through the novel to give a genuine sense of emotional connection with them. And the scientific extrapolation, too, is given with a light touch; while the specialist Professor Singh occasionally teeters on the edge of becoming professor exposition, Sawyer is able to hold it back just enough, enlightening the reader about the highly personalised nature of memories and how they are not necessarily the detailed or fixed concepts we might think they are.

Yet, all the same, there's a certain authorial naiveness about what a total lack of privacy could mean to individual humanity, which is all-too-crudely contrasted with an old school world of murky political conspiracy and personal betrayal. The final section of the novel is when the consequences of a total lack of privacy really comes to the forefront, and the result is not necessarily one the reader will accept. All credit to Sawyer putting a new spin on the concept of a cultural singularity, but his arguments in favour of it - and, indeed, his way of expressing it - are far from satisfactory.

Triggers by Robert J. Sawyer



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