Novel Review: Mindscan

Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel looks at a near future where technology raises issues related to identity and personhood.

General Information

Title: Mindscan

Author: Robert J. Sawyer

Original Publication Date: April 2005

ISBN: 0765311070

Buy from: Amazon.com or
Amazon.ca

Premise:

By the middle of this century, it becomes possible to download a complete copy of a person’s consciousness. Jake Sullivan, threatened by a rare medical condition, becomes one of the youngest people to do so. The new Jake takes over the life of the old one, while the original goes to live out his life in a secluded resort.

Legal challenges, however, face the new Jake, and the claims of the download-guided robots to peoplehood. The original Jake, meanwhile, gets cured of his condition, and wants his old life back.

Complicating matters further, Jake receives communication from what seem to be other copies of himself.

High Point

I was in a bizarre sensory state. In most ways, I was under stimulated: I wasn’t conscious of any smells, and although I could tell I was sitting up, which meant Ihad some notion of balance, there wasn’t any great downward pressure on theback of my thighs or my rear end. But my visual sense was overstimulated, assaulted by colors I’d never seen before. And if I looked at something featureless—like the wall— I could just make out themesh of pixels that composed my vision.

“How are you doing?” asked Porter.

“Fine,” I said. “Wonderful.”

“Good. Perhaps now is a good time to tell you about the secret missions we’re going to send you out on.”

“What?”

“You know, bionic limbs. Spying. Secret-agent cyborg stuff.”

“Dr. Porter, I—-“

Porter’s eyebrows were dancing with glee. “Sorry. I expect I’ll eventually get tired of doing that, but so far it’s been fun every time.”

1. The early days of the downloaded Jake’s life make for very interesting reading. Would your friends and family accept a robot with your mind as you? Would they accept it at all? Would your dog recognize any part of you? What are the implications of not having one’s original body to the sense of self? Sawyer wrestles admirably with these questions.

2. The courthouse scenes work well. They give Sawyer a reason to spell out the issues, something he delights in doing. Many of the book’s thematic concerns receive a literal hearing here: immortality and inheritance, rights and identity, individuality and consciousness, technological progress and the law, and Sawyer’s misguided belief that white guys shouldn’t shave their heads. *Cough.*. The fact that each side has something at stake makes the presentation of these important issues dramatic.

Low Points:

1. Sawyer has always been a novelist of ideas, a type common throughout the history of science fiction, and a highly political writer as well. I don’t regard this type of writing as inherently bad, though it may not suit all tastes. However, the degree to which he continually makes editorial comments starts to grate, even in context. He begins to resemble a mirror-image of the later Heinlein: very different politics, but verging on being equally polemic.

2. The conclusion tries to accomplish too much, too quickly. Sawyer’s books have always lacked a little in the area of characterization, and here, a stunning opportunity– the duplicate Jake witnessing the death of the original— gets wasted, as “Robo-Jake” has almost no developed (certainly, no credible) reaction to the event. That event, of course, conveniently solves a tricky plot complication, and it is followed by a rather long-winded bit of exposition by a minor character for the additional Jakes from whom we’ve apparently been hearing.

The Scores

Originality: 2/6 This type of story has been done many times before, most notably, perhaps, in Greg Egan’s “jewelhead” stories.

Story: 5/6 Sawyer has written a novel of ideas, but he has, once again, made it a page-turner. I found myself genuinely interested in the book. The ending, discussed earlier, seemed forced.

Characterization: 3/6 The novel gives primacy to ideological and scientific points and clever remarks. The characterization suffers in consequence. Karen’s encounter with her son seemed particularly artificial. The issues raised would arise, but neither so quickly nor so tidily.

Imagery: 4/6.

Emotional Response: 4/6 Typical of Sawyer’s books, I found I responded more to the ideas and their implications than to anything that the characters might be experiencing. Still, robo-Jake’s first encounters with his old life manage to be touching in their own right.

Editing: 4/6.

Overall Score: 4/6 Egan covered this territory better, but Sawyer has more popular appeal. If you like the kind of novel Sawyer writes, you’ll find this one worth reading.

In total, Mindscan receives 26/42

Additional Thoughts

I doubt we’ll have the technology he describes by 2045, or even 2145, whatever transhumanist types may say. Our mental processes are complex, and the requirement of instantaneous capture of all that data in a meaningful way seems overwhelming. Of course, I may be proven wrong, and as far as the novel goes, this is not terribly relevant. H.G. Well’s contemporaries couldn’t have built a time machine; we have to accept certain things as necessary for the story to take place. But, even if we never have the specific technology Sawyer postulates, issues related to technology and identity, longevity, and artificial intelligences will become increasingly relevant.

So, in addition to comments on the novel itself, perhaps some Bureauites would like to weigh in on its central questions: is a copy a person? Is it the same person? And how would duplication– or even extreme longevity– affect the world?

7 replies on “Novel Review: Mindscan”

  1. hossman says:

    Other good stories along this vein…

    I haven’t read Mindscan, but if people are interested in the topic of “brain dumps” and some of the philosophical/pragmatic issues involed, you should check out…

    …and one of my favorite 70s era short stories: “The Phantom of Kansas” by John Varley (which is probably a little hard to find, but worth it).

    • chad says:

      Re: Other good stories along this vein…

      Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is freely available online under the Creative Commons license. You can download it in a variety of formats from Doctorow’s site.

      I’ve read Altered Carbon and liked it, although there was a significant amount of sexual content. The book is part mystery and part speculative science fiction. I got really involved with the main character.

  2. TomSwiss says:

    the fission of personal identity

    is a copy a person? Is it the same person?

    Quite a few philosophers have speculated on this “fission” of personal identity. I spent two interestings semisters with once of them.

    It’s difficult to know for sure if a copy is actually a person – but no harder that it is to know if any other human is actually a person. There is, after all, only one person I’m really sure about, the rest of you may all be “dark inside”. I think the best we can do is what Turing’s test implies – robot, copy, or alien, if it acts like a person, treat it as such.

    “Same” is trickier. If I walk into a BodyXerox tomorrow and get a copy (call it Tom2) made, is Tom2 the same person who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1993 with an MS in Comp Sci? Sure. Just like the question of “is he a person or not”, we have to judge by how Tom2 acts, and if he’s got the knowledge and memories of that person, we have to admit him as being that person.

    But if in 2010, Tom2 commits a crime, should they lock Tom1 (the “original”) up? No, they’re not the same.

    If Tom0 is me now, Tom1 is the “original” after the copying, and Tom2 is the copy, then Tom2 and Tom1 are both the same person as Tom0, but Tom2 and Tom1 are not the same person as each other. IMHO, in the presence of fission, personal identity is not transitive – the concept of personal identity has an arrow of time associated with it.

    And how would duplication– or even extreme longevity– affect the world?

    Longevity, I’d like to find out. :-) Duplication, I think Brin’s Kiln People is an interesting take.

    • Timeshredder says:

      Re: the fission of personal identity

      Some of your other points are raised in this book’s trial chapters.

      Longevity, I’d like to find out. :-) Duplication, I think Brin’s Kiln People is an interesting take.

      Yeah, I think we’d all like to find out about that longevity thing, if we could have it with good health. And this book had me thinking of The Kiln People a few times.

      • GrimSean says:

        Re: the fission of personal identity

        Some of your other points are raised in this book’s trial chapters.

        Longevity, I’d like to find out. :-) Duplication, I think Brin’s Kiln People is an interesting take.

        Yeah, I think we’d all like to find out about that longevity thing, if we could have it with good health. And this book had me thinking of The Kiln People a few times.

        Hey Timeshredder and Tom

        If either of you can get your hands on it, the current issue of Analog (June 2005) has a story that seems somewhat similar called “The Policeman’s Daughter” by a Wil McCarthy. It deals with a society of immortals who back themselves up, and an earlier copy of an individual attempting to kill a later one. It’s pretty good – I’d judge it as above average from what I’ve seen of Analog since I started receiving it.

  3. Grounded says:

    Another…
    Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City in the Revelation Space universe is another one in this vein, although by the sound of the review it concentrates more on using these ideas to serve story.

    I’ve never read anything by Sawyer, although I’ve been meaning to for some time. Is Mindscan a good place to start or should I go for the obvious and begin with the Neanderthal Parallax?

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