I recently finished reading Triggers, the latest novel by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J Sawyer. After the television adaptation of his novel Flashforward, there was an obvious desire to tap into a larger market of potential fans. Many of Sawyer’s earlier novels had elements of suspense, but none could ever truly be called a thriller. They have all been heavy on the philosophical issues, exploring ideas and thoughts on the meaning of humanity.
Triggers is the combination of this philosophy on the human condition, mixed with high stakes action. Sawyer manages this quite well. While Sawyer’s message is as positive as always, the comparison to Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers is more relevant than ever.
Although Sawyer is writing a faster paced story, the primary plot elements are still based on scientific extrapolations, with a focus on what it means to be human. In Triggers, the focus is on human memory. Unlike the common perception of memory as being stored whole and complete, Sawyer draws on recent scientific studies which show that memories are encoded as a series of cues, which are then decoded and interpreted in a framework of our experiences. It is these cues, which contain noteworthy elements, which are then physically stored in the brain. It’s a really compelling theory, and explains a great deal about how the legal system now views memory.
In Triggers, Sawyer creates a situation where a medical experiment causes a link to be formed between two people, where the memories of the first could be accessed and decoded by the second. It is a science fiction version of telepathy, with the limitation that only these memory cues are accessed, from formed memories. It’s a fascinating premise, and Sawyer gets some good use out of it, with some interesting examples of how it might affect our sense of morality.
At the same time, it challenges our sense of individuality. Certain sensations or events can trigger memories, but how do you decide whose memory is being relived? How could people use this ability to their advantage, with someone else able to recall any of your memories? Omnipresent surveillance is a common theme in Sawyer’s novels, playing an important role in Flashforward, the Neanderthal Parallax novels, the Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, and now Triggers. In each novel, the circumstances and implications are different, but in all the cases, they affect our understanding of moral choices.
Triggers is not a perfect story. While the ending could be seen as a logical progression from the original premise, it felt too much like a deus ex machina. As intriguing as I found the earlier science about the physical encoding of memory, I found the further progression rather unsatisfying, and the eventual implications of the story rather unsettling. To make a Star Trek analogy, I greatly prefer the Federation to the Borg Collective.
Despite my dissatisfaction with the ending, Sawyer still writes a compelling story which tackles some interesting issues.