Tor, 1998, 352 pages
In the near future, a signal is detected coming from the Alpha Centauri system. Mysterious, unintelligible data streams in for ten years. Heather Davis, a professor in the University of Toronto psychology department, has devoted her career to deciphering the message. Her estranged husband, Kyle, is working on the development of artificial intelligence systems and new computer technology utilizing quantum effects to produce a near-infinite number of calculations simultaneously.
When Heather achieves a breakthrough, the message reveals a startling new technology that rips the barriers of space and time, holding the promise of a new stage of human evolution. In concert with Kyle's discoveries of the nature of consciousness, the key to limitless exploration - or the end of the human race - appears close at hand. Sawyer has created a gripping thriller, a pulse-pounding tour of the farthest reaches of technology. Factoring Humanity is a 1999 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel.
Factoring Humanity is ostensibly about humankind's first contact with aliens, but the aliens don't really show up until the very end, and the middle part of the novel is taken up by a soap opera storyline interspersed with the author's thought experiments. It's classic Big Idea science fiction, and the ideas were interesting enough to hold my attention when the characters really didn't.
In the first chapter, the daughter of temporarily separated scientists Heather and Kyle Davis confronts her father and accuses him of molesting her and her older sister (who committed suicide a couple of years earlier). It's a dramatic way to begin the story, but coming as it does following dry narrative exposition about the characters whose lives we're about to watch get thrown into disorder, it brought to mind the old "Show, don't tell" adage, why it's good advice (because since Sawyer just told me who all these people were before suddenly thrusting me into the abuse accusation, I really had no basis to form an opinion and no feelings about any of the characters), and how many authors get away with ignoring the rules of writing workshops and writerly advice books.
We also learn that Earth has been receiving radio signals from Alpha Centauri for several years. No one has managed to decipher them yet, but there is no question that they were produced by intelligent minds. Earth's nations have all collectively agreed not to answer until they can decide how to answer.
Kyle is a professor of computer science who's built the world's first Artificial Intelligence, "Cheetah." In a lot of ways, Cheetah was more believable than the human characters: Sawyer has done his homework and the AI, which has all the facilities to mimic humanity and pass a Turing Test but is not truly self-aware, actually has a poignant part to play in this novel, though for the first part of it I thought it was little more than a prop.
Heather is a Jungian psychologist, and she is the one who has a breakthrough in deciphering what the Centauri aliens are trying to tell humanity. This breakthrough turns out to be directly applicable to her personal crisis: her daughter's accusations against her estranged husband.
I liked the way Sawyer thought out the implications of all the high falutin' ideas he presents, and tied everything together in an optimistic if scary new world. That said, Factoring Humanity is a slow-paced novel about ideas, not action. If you liked Carl Sagan's Contact, this book is rather similar in concept and execution.
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