Saturday, March 03, 2007

B.W.'s Book Report: Mindscan

In John Scalzi's Old Man's War, people's consciousness is transferred into new, artificial bodies. The process presumably leaves the person's original body an empty, dead shell.

Robert J. Sawyer had a similar idea with an important difference. In his near-future, technology can copy a person's consciousness into a new, artificial body - but the person's original body lives on, complete with its original consciousness. Because the original body has not long to live, each person who undergoes this process agrees to transfer all of his/her identity and accompanying rights to the person inside the new body, whose memories and mind are identical - at least as of the moment of transfer. The "shed skins" get to live out the rest of their lives at a luxury resort on the far side of the moon, while the copy gets to continue the original person's life indefinitely.

Two problems: Our hero, who undergoes the process in his 40s because he is doomed to die early from a congenital problem, is unexpectedly made well by a newly discovered cure. And his new girlfriend, a transferred multimillionaire novelist, is sued by her son, who considers his mother dead and wants the inheritance.

In Mindscan, Sawyer has crafted an intriguing tale that tackles the big questions. What makes us human? What is the nature of consciousness? When does life begin? When does life end? When does a developing fetus become a person? When does a human being cease to be a person?

The story is set in a time when the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision has been overturned, much to the dismay of our two protaganists, but the questions about personhood raised by that case come back to haunt them as they fight for the right to be considered persons themselves. Sawyer, to my mind, manages to be fair to both sides of this emotionally charged subject in crafting a realistic scenario as the story plays out.

I picked this book up more or less at random from a pile of books that had accumulated in the eight months since last I finished a book. It was a terrific way to dive back into the habit. I'm not going to go into much more detail about the plot, because watching it unfold is a lot of fun. Sawyer has already won the Hugo and Nebula awards for previous works - this one deserves that level of recognition, too.

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