Factoring Humanity, by Robert J. Sawyer

factoring-humanity-by-robert-j-sawyer coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 1998
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by Aaron M. Renn

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Sawyer makes a valiant attempt to write a science fiction story that is as much about real human relationships as it is about science. While this is a worthy goal, Sawyer only partially succeeds in attaining it. His characters and situations reminded me too much of a Lifetime made for TV movie (marital troubles, child abuse, eating disorders, sexual harassment, repressed memories, etc) for comfort. In the end I just didn’t really find that I cared much about anyone in this story. The rest of the plot was likewise made up cliched elements (first contact with aliens, collective consciousness, artificial intelligence, etc), but they were woven together into a mostly entertaining tale. My main complaint is actually there was a lot of potential in this book that just wasn’t explored. I got the feeling I was reading a novella instead of a novel.

It is the year 2017, and Earth has been receiving daily transmissions from Alpha Centuri for several years. These abruptly stop, triggering a mad dash to decipher their meaning. Heather Davis is a psychologist working on this problem. Her estranged husband is Kyle Graves, a computer scientist specializing in quantum computing. As Heather works to discover the meaning of the signals, her family life is in a state of major upheaval. The resolution of the family problems are really the heart of the book, and when they come to their conclusion, it basically fizzles out. As I said, the premises that Sawyer set up in this story were so full of potential that I was expecting a lot more. I was very disappointed when I didn’t get it.

This book is fairly light reading, so I was surprised to see that Factoring Humanity is a Hugo Award nominee. I haven’t yet read the other candidates so can’t really compare, but I didn’t really think think this book even deserved to get issued in hardcover. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a workman-like job that entertains and was worth the money I spent on it, but I don’t think it is one that will linger with me for long after I’ve finished it.

Interestingly, Factoring Humanity is Sawyer’s fourth consecutive Hugo nomination. He’s yet to get a win, though his 1995 novel The Terminal Experiment won a Nebula. At the rate he’s going he’s in danger of becoming the Susan Lucci of the Hugos.

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