[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


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Novel Synopsis

THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.


Spoiler Warning! This document discloses many of the details of the plot of the novel it discusses. It's strongly recommended that you not look at this document until after finishing the novel in question.


This isn't actually an outline — it's a 2,400-word novel synopsis, created after the book was finished. Robert J. Sawyer wrote his Nebula Award-winning novel The Terminal Experiment without a contract, and without a formal outline. However, when the novel was serialized in four parts in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine (under Rob's original title of Hobson's Choice), editor Stanley Schmidt requested a synopsis of the first three-quarters of the novel, to be run in successively longer versions at the beginning of the second, third, and fourth installments of the serial. This document started out as that synopsis, but Rob Sawyer continued it to include the ending of the novel, of which, obviously, no summary was required for Analog's purposes.

HOBSON'S CHOICE

(Published in book form as
The Terminal Experiment)

December 2011: Detective ALEXANDRIA ("SANDRA") PHILO, 36, of the Metropolitan Toronto Police is in hospital dying from radiation damage inflicted by an illegal weapon called a beamer. PETER HOBSON, Ph.D., 42, president of Hobson Monitoring Limited, a biomedical engineering firm, bursts into her hospital room. Sandra is shocked: she believes Peter, a prime suspect in some recent murders, is the man who arranged for the attack that has mortally wounded her. Peter protests his innocence, and tells her of a new technique, pioneered by Peter's best friend, artificial-intelligence specialist Dr. SARKAR MUHAMMED, to scan every neural net in a human brain and produce an exact duplicate of the subject's mind inside a computer. Using this technique, Peter says that three computer duplicates of his own mind were created — and one of them, he claims, was responsible for the murders. Even though Sandra is dying, Peter says there's still a way for her to catch the murdering simulation.

Flashback to January 1995: Peter Hobson is now just 26, a biomedical engineering student whose course work requires him to log some real-world experience with medical monitoring equipment. He's given the chance to operate the EKG during an operation to harvest for transplant the heart of a teenaged boy who had been in a severe motorcycle accident. But during the harvesting procedure, the supposedly dead boy gasps on the operating table.

Peter learns that bodies to be used for organ harvesting are never taken off life support. He realizes that in a very real sense the teenaged boy didn't die until the moment the transplant surgeon removed his heart from his chest.

Flash-forward to 2011: To this day, Peter is haunted by nightmares about the supposedly dead boy waking up on the operating table. Because of this, he's been working on a super-sensitive EEG that he hopes will be able to precisely determine the actual moment of final, irreversible death. Meanwhile, Peter has also become intrigued by a new nanotechnology process that claims to provide practical immortality for human beings.

Peter is now married to a woman named CATHY, who, although she has a degree in chemistry, works in a non-creative position for Doowap Advertising. Out of the blue one day, Cathy tearfully confesses to Peter that she has slept three times now with a loutish office Lothario named HANS LARSEN. Peter is devastated, crying for the first time in decades. Cathy goes for counseling, and learns that her infidelity might be the result of the cold, uncaring upbringing she'd had at the hands of her father, ROD CHURCHILL, now a retired gym teacher.

Peter tests his superEEG on PEGGY FENNELL, a woman dying of old age, and discovers to his astonishment a complex, cohesive electrical field moving through her brain, and departing from it at the moment of death. He shares this discovery with Sarkar, who immediately accepts what Peter has been having difficulty believing: that the electrical field was in fact Peggy's soul. Peter has found the first scientific proof for some form of continuing existence after death.

END OF PART ONE

Peter manages to get additional recordings of the soulwave — the name he adopts for the coherent electrical field — in the brains of over a hundred healthy people. He also gets two additional recordings of the soulwave leaving dying bodies. Sarkar pushes Peter to pursue the one question that Peter had been avoiding: when does the soulwave first appear in humans? Twelve years ago, Peter and Cathy had made what was, for them, a very difficult decision: to have an abortion. Peter does abdominal scans of thirty-two pregnant women, and finds that the soulwave first appears nine or ten weeks after conception, just about the time Cathy had terminated her pregnancy. Peter realizes that once he goes public with his findings, he will be damned by people on both sides of the abortion issue.

Peter holds a press conference to announce the discovery of the soulwave, and does a media tour that includes appearances on Donahue and Geraldo. Everyone wants to know the answer to one question: what is life after death really like? Peter says he has no idea — there's nothing in his data to give any indication.

Sarkar proposes an experiment to answer that question: he suggests using his neural-scanning techniques to duplicate a human brain inside a computer, then excise all the neural-net connections related to biological functioning. What's left might be, in some way, an approximation of whatever part of the human psyche might survive separate from the body after death.

Peter is intrigued, but wants to go a step further, indulging his curiosity about nanotech immortality by making a second computer simulacrum that has all concerns about aging and death edited out — a simulation of a human mind that knows it is immortal.

A scan of Peter's own brain is used as the source for creating three computer simulations: the "Spirit" sim, which attempts to model life after death; the "Ambrotos" sim, which models immortality; and "Control," an unmodified version to serve as a baseline for the experiment. The three sims are activated inside the computers at Sarkar's company. Peter and Sarkar have dialogs with the two modified sims about the nature of life after death and immortality, and Peter adopts the Control sim as a private confidant with which to share his marital woes.

Meanwhile, Peter also becomes intrigued by Sarkar's artificial-life experiments, which use the principles of cumulative evolution to create very complex computer simulations out of simple mathematical formulae — simulations so complex that they are arguably alive.

Left running unattended, the three sims together access the online help system of Sarkar's computers and find their way out into the global computer network. Two of the sims are content to pursue the boundless information and virtual-reality simulations available on the net — but the third has a much more concrete agenda. It uses electronic funds transfer to arrange for a hitman to castrate and then kill Hans Larsen.

Detective Sandra Philo is assigned to the Larsen murder. She realizes it is likely a professional hit ... and begins the search for who might have ordered it.

END OF PART TWO

Sandra's investigation uncovers that Hans Larsen had been sleeping with his co-worker Cathy Hobson — making her, and her husband, Peter Hobson, likely suspects in the murder investigation.

The same sim that arranged the death of Hans Larsen now turns its attention to Cathy's father, Rod Churchill, whose coldness had left Cathy vulnerable to Larsen's advances. After breaking into a government medical-records database, the sim discovers that Rod is taking the prescription drug phenelzine. The sim tampers with the central ordering computer at a fast-food delivery chain that Rod uses every Wednesday night. The next time he orders his standard meal, his blood pressure shoots sky-high while eating it, and he drops dead, apparently from an aneurysm.

Meanwhile, Spirit, the life-after-death sim, has discovered Sarkar's artificial-life experiments, and has started modifying them. To Sarkar's and Peter's astonishment, Spirit has turned out to be much more intelligent than the flesh-and-blood Peter Hobson: in eliminating all neural-net connections related to the physical body, Sarkar has apparently also eliminated the limitations that cause neural nets — and the ideas they are carrying — to rapidly decay in the brain. This allows Spirit to build up very complex thoughts.

The death of Rod Churchill is initially taken as accidental, but in doing a database search Sandra Philo discovers the surprising coincidence that Cathy Hobson has had two deaths associated with her recently — first Hans Larsen, and now her father.

Sandra visits the Churchill home and finds the computerized printout of Rod's fast-food order and his prescription bottle of phenelzine, which has a sticker on it warning of severe dietary restrictions. Her curiosity piqued, she visits Rod's doctor and discovers that phenelzine is an anti-depressant drug. Rod's previous doctor had died recently, and his new doctor had recognized at once what the old doctor had failed to diagnose, namely that Rod had suffered from lifelong clinical depression. Phenelzine, despite the dietary restrictions that went with its use, was the only treatment for this that Rod had responded to. But in looking over the fast-food order, the doctor says there's no way Rod, who understood well his dietary restrictions, would have ordered regular gravy as part of his meal, since most gravies contain tyramine, which would react with the phenelzine to raise Rod's blood pressure to crisis levels.

Sandra visits the fast-food ordering facility and finds that Rod's order had been altered from its usual standard, with regular gravy substituted for the synthetic tyramine-free gravy he normally had. Rod's death now looks like a clever murder — and Cathy Hobson, with her degree in chemistry, looks like a very likely suspect, especially after Sandra discovers that the government medical database records for Rod Churchill had been accessed using an account that had belonged to a doctor who had gone to university with Cathy and Peter Hobson.

Sandra confronts Cathy, who denies any involvement in either murder, but Cathy now wonders if her husband Peter is responsible. She asks Peter if he arranged the murders; Peter is shocked at the suggestion ... but then thinks of the sims. Perhaps one of them is guilty; in cutting neural-network connections, Sarkar might have inadvertently removed whatever it is that causes human morality. Peter calls Sarkar at home, and the two of them race to the offices of Mirror Image, Sarkar's company, in hopes of pulling the plug before whichever sim is responsible kills again.

END OF PART THREE

Sarkar and Peter discover that the sims have escaped out into the worldwide computer network, and are beyond their reach. Still, it might help if they knew which sim was responsible — and so they attempt to determine how morality might be altered by already being dead or by living forever.

Cathy wonders aloud if one of the versions of Peter will want Detective Philo dead, now that she is getting closer to the truth. Meanwhile, Sarkar races to develop a computer virus that could find and destroy the sims wherever they may be.

Detective Philo has Peter submit to a lie-detector test. Peter is doing fine until he panics when Philo stumbles too close to the truth. She now suspects the involvement of artificial intelligences and has established a link between Peter and the firm Mirror Image.

Sandra and a crack team from the Toronto Police's Computer Crimes Division conduct a raid on Mirror Image. Peter, who happens to be logged on to Mirror Image's computers over the phone lines, manages just in time to hide all evidence of the brain scans before the police can uncover it.

That night, while Peter is still at the office, Cathy returns home from work. But the murdering sim has taken over the household computers, and terrorizes Cathy until Peter rescues her.

Peter is shocked to discover that his father-in-law had been on anti-depression medication. Everything he'd thought about him is seen in a new light — Rod Churchill couldn't help his coldness. But the murdering sim must have known about Rod's depression, since his medication for that condition was the key to killing him. Peter realizes now that whichever sim is responsible doesn't just have skewed morality — it has no morality at all.

Searching through his company's financial records, Peter discovers the electronic funds transfer to the hitman who had killed Larsen. But not only that — he finds a second payment to the same hitman, made just two days ago. Who could be the intended victim?

Suddenly, he remembers what Cathy had said about Peter possibly wanting Detective Philo out of the way. Peter rushes to her home, arriving just in time to interrupt the hitman in the process of killing her with a beamer weapon. Peter manges to get ahold of Sandra's gun, and shoots the hitman. But the wound closes up — the hitman has undergone the nanotechnology immortality process. Sandra is still alive, but has received a lethal dose of radiation. The hitman flees as police sirens approach, and Peter manages to escape.

Sarkar has finally perfected the computer virus to kill the sims. In fact, he's created three separate versions — one for each of the three sims. Peter sends a message out onto the computer network, summoning the three sims into a real-time conference. He says they will release all three viruses unless the guilty sim identifies itself, in which case they will only destroy the sim that's actually guilty.

One sim does admit to the crimes — but, incredibly, it's the Control sim, the unmodified version — a version that knows it is a simulation; knows, therefore, that it has no soul; knows it will never face ultimate judgment ...

Sarkar, wanting a clean end to everything, releases all three viruses despite the promise to only go after the guilty sim. But the Spirit sim, with its augmented intelligence, has already found a way to defeat Sarkar's viruses. The murdering sim is going to get away, it seems, unless ...

... the action comes full circle now, with Peter Hobson bursting into the hospital room of the dying Detective Philo. Sarkar scans her brain before she dies, and releases a simulation of her into the worldwide computer net, an electronic detective to hunt down the killer. The computerized Sandra chases the fugitive sim through the computer network and finally destroys it.

The Spirit sim has been continuing with its artificial-life experiments, finally developing a separate universe within the computer networks — a universe in which monogamy is the only strategy that ensures survival of one's genes to the next generation. Spirit has at last closed the wound caused by Cathy's infidelity.

In the real world, though, it's going to take longer. But Peter's going to try. After all, he loves Cathy with all his heart ... and soul.

In a brief epilogue years later, Peter Hobson, having chosen not to pursue immortality, finally dies ... and we travel with his departing soulwave, which, although it retains none of his memories, is still the essence of all he was. An atom of God, it returns to where it came from.


More Good Reading

More about The Terminal Experiment
The Terminal Experiment wins the Nebula Award

Other novel outlines and synopses
Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer


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