Review: Mindscan by Robert Sawyer

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Summary: Disappointing.

Extended Summary: I don't usually read Sawyer's stuff. There's just something a bit offputting and preachy to it, like more recent Haldeman, but Mindscan has an interesting premise: a company develops the technology to upload your brain and transfer it into an android chassis. This is used to offer the old (and rich) the opportunity for extreme life extension. The original is shipped up to (and required to stay at) a resort on the moon to live out their (presumably few) remaining days. Sawyer is onto something important here: how does it feel to be the "copy" which wakes up in the original body and knows that you're still going to die? Good point, no? Unfortunately, Sawyer doesn't seem to know quite what to do with it and the result is pretty muddled. More (including spoilers) after the fold.

Mindscan starts out well enough. Protaganist Jake Sullivan goes in to get scanned, but wakes up in a different body than he expected:
"All right, Mr. Sullivan, you can come out now." It was Dr. Killian's voice, with its Jamaican lilt.

My heart sank. No...

"Mr. Sullivan? We've finished the scanning. If you'll press the red button..."

It hit me like a ton of bricks, like a tidal wave of blood. No! I should be somewhere else, but I wasn't.

Damn it all, but I wasn't.

"If you need some help getting out..." offered Killian.

I reflexively brought up my hands, patting my chest, feeling the softness of it, feeling it rise and fall. Jesus Christ!

"Mr. Sullivan?"

"I'm coming, damn it. I'm coming."

I hit the button without looking at it, and the bed slid out of the scanning tube, emergine feet-first; a breech birth. Damn! Damn! Damn!

I hadn't exerted myself at all, but my breathing was rapid, shallow. If only—

I felt a hand cupping my elbow. "I've got you, Mr. Sullivan," said Killian. "Upsa-daisy..." My feet connected with the harsh tile floor. I had known intellectually that it had been a fifty-fifty shot, but I'd only thought about what it was going to be like to wake up in a new, healthy, artifical body. I hadn't really considered...

"All you all right, Mr. Sullivan?" she asked. "You look—"

"I'm fine," I snapped. "Fine and dandy. Jesus Christ—"

"Is there something I can—"

"I'm doomed. Don't you get it?"

She frowned. "Do you want me to call a medical doctor?"

I shook my head. "You just scanned my consciousness, making a duplicate of my mind, right?" My voice was sneering. "And since I'm aware of things after you finished the scanning, that means I—this versi\ on—isn't that copy. The copy doesn't have to worry about becoming a vegetable anymore—it's free. Finally and at last, it's free of everything that's been hanging over my head for the last twenty-seven years. We've diverged now, and the cured me has started down its path. But this me is still doomed. I could have woken up in a new, healed body, but—"

Killian's voice was gentle. "But, Mr. Sullivan, one of you was bound to still be in this body..."

"I know, I know, I know." I shook my head, and took a few paces forward. There was no window in the scanning room, which was probably just as well; I don't think I was quite ready to face the world. "And the one of us that is still in this bloody body, with this fucked brain, is still doomed."

So far, so good. Unfortunately, after Killian has been shipped off to the moon we get:

  • A love plot with another transferee.
  • Killian's family (and dog) rejecting him because he's now a robot.
  • A conveniently timed cure for what Killian was dying of, prompting Killian to decide he wants his old life back.
  • Killian's love interest's original version helpfully dying.
  • Killian's love interest's son suing her (claiming she's actually dead) to get her money, conveniently setting the stage for a bunch of exports to hold forth on whether or not the transferees are the same people as the originals. (Better coverage of this in Reasons and Persons).
  • Oh yeah, and it turns out that the mind scanning guys have made more than one copy of Killian and they're in telepathic contact via quantum entanglement (the transfer progress uses a "quantum fog"). This feels totally contrived and leads to an even more contrived ending.

For some reason, Sawyer has made the really unfortunate choice to alternate perspectives between the original and the copy. This makes all the handwringing about whether copies are people or not kind of silly, since we know for a fact that the copy is just as real as the original. And once the threat of imminent death to Killian is liften, pretty much all we're left with is the courtroom drama and Killian's attempt to get back to earth, none of which is very interesting or original.

For a better treatment of this general topic, see Think Like A Dinosaur by James Patrick Kelly.

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