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Factoring Humanity

A book by Robert J. Sawyer

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Breathtaking in its scope!

  • Nov 8, 2010
  • by
You have to hand it to Sawyer! He certainly isn't one to think small! Why deal with mere cutting edge esoteric research when one can create "Factoring Humanity", a novel that folds that research into a gutsy thought experiment encompassing all of humanity, the nature of consciousness, extra-terrestrial communication and the manifold structure of the universe?

Heather Davis, a professor in the psychology faculty at the University of Toronto, has spent a significant part of her career attempting to decode a ten year long stream of obviously structured radio signals that clearly emanate from an intelligent source in Alpha Centauri. Her estranged husband, Kyle, puts in his scientific day on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence research and the development of quantum computer technology. (His pet project "Cheetah" is an APE, a computer designed to Approximate Psychological Experiences. With startlingly realistic responses, Cheetah comes very close but doesn't quite clear Turing's bar of deceiving a human interrogator.) In one of those serendipitous "Eureka" moments, Heather achieves a complete breakthrough decoding the alien signal stream and realizes that the decoded data comprise a blueprint to build an amazing new technology. As she and Kyle stumble through the learning curve associated with manipulating this new alien machine, it becomes clear that humanity's understanding of communication, consciousness and the very structure of the universe will never be the same again! Life and our perceptions of reality will be fundamentally altered as soon as knowledge of this technology enters the public domain.

"Factoring Humanity" contains a parallel sub-plot line in which Heather and Kyle's daughter, under psychological counseling, re-discovers suppressed memories of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, Kyle. Issues such as sexual abuse of children, sexual harassment, Jungian theories of "false" or "suppressed" memories and the myriad social outcomes of accusations of sexual misconduct are dealt with warmly, sensitively and realistically. But, unfortunately, this whole more human part of Sawyer's novel to me seemed artificially contrived and awkwardly shoehorned into the science in order to provide a canvas on which to paint his fascinating hypothesis about the possible nature of human consciousness and communication! The two stories were individually compelling and well-crafted but their integration into a whole was less than seamless.

On the other hand, Kyle's relationship with Cheetah and Cheetah's burgeoning intelligence and unique character provide an absolutely fascinating third facet to Sawyer's wonderful tale that flows much more smoothly into the story as a whole. In a manner reminiscent of Star Trek's Data, Cheetah's ruminations comprise a thought-provoking essay on the nature of sentience and humanity which is at once warm, gripping, humorous and intelligent.

A magnificent four-star combination of the outer reaches of hard and soft sci-fi from Canada's premier author of contemporary science fiction.

Paul Weiss

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More Factoring Humanity reviews
Quick Tip by . November 08, 2010
A sci-fi novel that blends cutting edge esoteric research into a gutsy thought experiment encompassing all of humanity, the nature of consciousness, extra-terrestrial communication and the manifold structure of the universe. The very best of both the hard and soft sides of the sci-fi spectrum.
review by . October 07, 2004
Each Sawyer book I have read seems to outdo the previous one. This is no exception. It has a little of everything including family drama, unethical medical practices, alien messages, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the collective human "overmind," with a few consortiums of individuals that are trying to "buy off" scientific discoveries, being thrown into the mix. . Sawyer has a talent for presenting complex scientific theories in an interesting fashion. Each book seems to hint at answers …
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Paul Weiss ()
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   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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Factoring Humanitywill undoubtedly satisfy Sawyer fans, as well as those looking for positive-future scenarios à la Carl Sagan'sContact. Rather than a galactic vision of war and peace, this novel is localized in the extreme: the plot revolves around Heather, a psychology professor struggling to decipher extraterrestrial messages, and her estranged husband, Kyle, on the brink of the biggest computer science breakthrough of all time. What makesFactoring Humanitywork is that Sawyer deals with vast ideas such as alien contact, quantum mechanics, and the human overmind, but does so to a deeply personal effect.

Sawyer, like many writers of near-future science fiction, has an unfortunate tendency to be too rooted in today, to make so many casual references to our present that they draw undue attention to themselves, making it difficult for the reader to suspend disbelief. This fascination with 20th-century pop culture crowds the real story and real details into a corner and underscores an apparent lack of creativity in painting future landscapes. Otherwise, and forgiving Sawyer's breathtakingly myopic view of Native Canadians and rather bland prose, this is exciting, readable science fiction that will take you where no one has gone before--and you'll never forget the ending. --Jhana Bach --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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ISBN-10: 0765309033
ISBN-13: 978-0765309037
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Publisher: Orb Books
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