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

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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.”


“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?