Robert J. Sawyer is one of those names that float through the genre world that everyone presumes everyone else has read. Especially since his starring role on the hit television show Lost – he’s really good looking isn’t he? Regardless, I was ashamed to admit that I’d never read Sawyer, who isn’t quite genre and isn’t quite mainstream, falling instead into an odd gully occupied by the likes of Michael Crichton, Margaret Atwood, and Peter F. Hamilton (that’s a joke). Triggers, his newest novel set in a very near future United States, broke that pattern of behavior for me, but didn’t entirely convince me of his status as an industry icon.
In Sawyer’s vision of the future, terrorism and fear have overtaken America. Bombs in Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia have been detonated to catastrophic result. President Seth Jerrison has had enough. On the day before an unprecedented strike against the Middle East, an assassin’s bullet strikes him during an address to the nation at the Lincoln Memorial. Rushed to the hospital (not George Washington Hospital?), surgeons struggle to save his life.
At the same hospital, researcher Dr. Ranjip Singh is treating a soldier suffering from PTSD. An expert on memory, Dr. Singh has developed an experimental device that can erase traumatic memories. When another terrorist bomb detonates, destroying the White House in the process, the blast perverts Singh’s device, causing a group of people to access one another’s minds. Now someone has access to the president’s memories — including classified information regarding the upcoming military mission. The task of determining who has switched memories with whom falls to the agent-in-change of the President’s Secret Service detail, Susan Dawson, who’s got problems of her own.
For all intents and purposes, Triggers is more psychological thriller than big idea science fiction. Sawyer’s premise that an experimental memory machine gone haywire causes individuals to share memories isn’t all that out there in a world where Flashforward and Momento have run the proverbial traps. He lays enough scientific foundation to suspend the reader’s disbelief, but not so much that it becomes the novel’s focus. Instead the focus remains on his cast of characters, how they interact with one another, and the inherent biases that make up their perceptions.
In that way, Triggers is not unlike the 1957 Sidney Lumet film 12 Angry Men, which was a character study of twelve white men sitting in judgement of a Latino teenager. In the film Lumet has:
“the self-made man who angrily remembers his son’s defiance of authority. There is the garage owner seething with racial prejudice. There is the calm stockbroker who seriously has arrived at his verdict of guilty. There is the wise-cracking salesman anxious to vote so as to be able to get out to the ball game. There is the handsome, vacillating Madison Avenue advertising man. There is an old man, wise and benign with the years. And there is a refugee watchmaker who is appreciative of the ideals and freedoms of democracy.” (N.Y. Times, A.H. Wheeler, 1957)
Sawyer likewise delves into the heads of each of his afflicted and disparate subjects, from the racist eighty-seven year old woman, to the opportunistic and libido driven attorney, to the misguided, but committed leader of the free world. Rather than a young man on trial for his life, Sawyer’s defendant is the President’s response to terrorism and the rightness of an eye for an eye. By the novel’s conclusion his position is self evident. Using his cast of characters to ask what makes people unique and how those attributes color their interactions with the world, Sawyer ultimately focuses on those that unify.
Oh, did I have the wrong
Unity, in the sense that there is or should be or could be some factor that brings ‘us’ all together, is a the underlying theme of Sawyer’s novel and it’s one I struggled with on a personal level. Perhaps that’s why I found Triggers so underwhelming in the final moments. Sawyer carefully constructs tension built on the notion that the President’s knowledge of a secret attack could be revealed at any moment, calling into question the safety and security of the United States. The resolution to the problem cuts through that tension like the Gordian Knot, not so much invalidating the narrative as rendering it obsolete. Even had I found the conclusion uplifting, as was surely intended, and not horrifying and off-putting, the consequences of it to the larger narrative remain intolerable to me.
That said, the construction and build-up to the conclusion are without peer. Sawyer demonstrates a tremendous ability to write compelling characters that cannot be ignored and a knack for pace. Going into the final pages I was already considering Triggers to be one of the better novels I’ve read this year. Of course, that makes my ultimate verdict so much harder to hand down. While Sawyer’s newest novel contends for excellence, it fails to deliver on the promises made in the early chapters. What is presented as, and reads like, a techno-thriller, concludes like a novel with a philosophical agenda that’s ill-suited to the trappings around it.
Fans of Robert J. Sawyer, and new readers alike, will find lots of like here, but I fear disappointment will be the most common outcome of its conclusion. Triggers is due out April 3, 2012 wherever books are sold.