Robert J. Sawyer
(Warning: this review contains both spoilers and theology. Oops.) It is the near future, and it’s a moment of crisis in Washington, D.C. The White House is bombed by terrorists just as the president is rushed to the hospital following a separate assassination attempt; at the same time, a memory scientist’s experiment within the hospital goes wrong, causing about twenty people – including the president – each to begin reading another person’s memories. Amidst the confusion and chaos, who is “reading” whom, and what dangerous security breaches may ensue? FBI agents, scientists, and the president himself are all scrambling to find out before it’s too late.
This book proposes an interesting, thriller-ish premise, and follows up on it with lots of fast-paced action and dialogue, while at the same time exploring several interesting character-based concepts as the affected people respond in different ways to their new memory-reading abilities. From the characters who use their new knowledge simply to satisfy lustful impulses, to those who develop a new understanding and empathy towards others, the author explores these people’s reactions to their new abilities in an interesting way, while never losing track of the fast-paced plot. The book doesn’t feel like an ideas-based story at all, and there are too many characters for the reader to become very invested in any of them, but the concept is still tolerably interesting in that regard.
However, at the end, this novel threw me for a huge loop. Maybe I should have seen the plot twist coming earlier on, but I didn’t, and I was totally horrified by the book’s conclusion. Essentially, the author promotes a vision of a utopian future in which all individuality is effectively erased through the emergence of a sort of human hive mind. As this hive mind develops at the end of the book, “individual will” is explicitly blamed for all the evils in the world; now that it’s gone, we’re expected to believe, all humanity will be happy and good for the rest of time. It’s basically empathy gone wild.
Of course, empathy is a good thing, and, on an individual scale, its value is displayed in the story, as the ability to understand what it is like to be another particular individual else helps to heal racism, engender compassion, and forestall violence. However, the concluding subsummation of all individuality into a ‘group mind’, portrayed as the gateway to a perfect society, horrified me as reader. (Ironically, it also essentially negated all the relational progress the characters had made through their increased understanding of one another – after all, without individuality, relationships are essentially impossible.) The idea that humanity would be better off without individuality struck me as repulsive and deeply problematic.
Thus, in the end, I really didn’t like this book. However, the book did have one value for me – it got me thinking about why the portrayed destruction of individuality struck me as so horrible, when this utopian vision was obviously meant by the author to be inspiring and beautiful. I spent some time thinking through this concept and why it was so bothersome to me on a moral level. There are lots of problems with it, of course, but I settled on a couple in particular. One, the obliteration of individual will destroys the capacity for choice, and thereby for virtue and vice. A world without virtue is not my idea of a utopian paradise. And two, just look around you. God seems to be a pretty big fan of individuality. Humanity is defined by it. And Christ himself was an individual, with a unique personality, unique choices, and a unique will. I think it’s safe to say that the ultimate reality of human community – the consummation of the communion of the saints – will be a lot more complex – and glorious – than any hive mind ever could be.