Thursday, May 31, 2012

Book Review: TRIGGERS by Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is a hell of an idea man. Every time he puts a book out, without fail, it quickly makes it way to the top of my ‘to read’ pile. Because, hell, who doesn’t want to read about the Internet gaining sentience, or first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization or a parallel world where Neanderthal man survived to become the dominant life form? Those are all really interesting premises on which to base a story.
In TRIGGERS the United States is under assault by a terrorist organization that has successfully carried out a number of attacks on American soil. When President Seth Jerrison is shot delivering a speech in front of the Lincoln memorial it seems as if there is nothing that can be done to stem the tide of destruction and misery.
Led by Secret Service agent Sue Dawson, Jerrison is rushed to a nearby hospital for treatment. As a team of surgeons struggles to save his life a powerful bomb destroys the White House and releases an EMP which scrabbles the machinery of Dr. Ranjip Singh, who is attempting to provide relief to patients suffering from traumatic memories.
But there is an unexpected side effect. Singh’s equipment has linked 24 minds within the hospital to one another, including Jerrison’s. These 24 people can now read the memories of one other person caught in the blast radius.
Now, with time running out, Dawson must figure who has access to the President’s memories and how she can stop them from revealing American’s deadly planned response to the terrorist threat.
Looking back over his bibliography Sawyer pushes out nearly a book a year. That’s a pretty impressive output when you consider that it takes GRRM the better part of a decade to cough up a single novel. But as we all learnt in primary school quantity doesn’t always add to quality and even the most prodigious idea-generating machine will sometimes trip up on the execution of it.
Unfortunately TRIGGERS is one of those times.
The big problem underlying TRIGGERS is that it doesn’t really know what it’s supposed to be about. The book’s lack of identifiable personality drags it down as it lurches unsteadily between genre. Is it about the sci-fi hook or the political intrigue? Are we supposed to be paying attention to the social commentary or the mystery/whodunnit angle that plays such a visible part in the first half of the book?  It feels like Sawyer took a mixed bag of literary tropes and just threw them up on the page in whatever order he felt was most appropriate. Rather than create a single cohesive storyline that blends and mixes the motifs of the various genre it feels more like a Frankensteinian monster, with the central narrative marred by the strange limbs that have been awkwardly grafted onto its body.  
This genre excess contributes to the feeling that the book could have used a serious rethink on its structure. With so many distinct story hooks bubbling up and demanding the reader’s attention every plot development feels truncated as Sawyer trundles along to the get to the next beat.
I feel that so much of what bothers me about the nature of the story could have been solved if the story had been stretched out for a couple novels. For example the subplot where Dawson has to figure out who’s reading the President’s memories is the dominant story of the first half of the book, more so than any other plot point. When that storyline comes to a screeching halt halfway I had to flail around for a bit until I figured out where Sawyer was going to take the story now.
In fact, at times it feels like even Sawyer isn’t sure where the narrative is going as he seemingly abandons telling a story to just check in on how his characters’ are coping with the memory linkages. The discovery of who is reading the president’s mind feels like it would have been a natural ending point for the book. I think if Sawyer had made the decision to wrap the story there it would have given him the opportunity to flesh out other subplots, like the simmering geo-political tension and possible traitor within the Secret Service, that are currently given short shift.
Another failing of TRIGGERS is that it feels like a very dry, emotionally reserved story. Despite the rich subject matter Sawyer maintains a scientist’s detachment throughout the book, delving into a number of complex and diverse characters but somehow imbuing them all with the same objective authorial voice. I don’t get a sense of distinct characters or personalities, but instead I’m treated to a series of interchangeable ciphers who’s only distinguishing features is the amount of knowledge they have at their fingertips.
A hallmark of Sawyer’s writing is his willingness to editorialize and educate throughout. Like any good scientist he knows the importance of peppering the lecture with a couple interesting facts to keep the audience paying attention. As an author Sawyer has always worked to make sure his subjects are impeccably researched and chronicled as faithfully as possible. But there’s an incongruity within TRIGGERS, a feeling that despite all the historical accuracy he may have stuttered on some of the practical aspects of his story.
I never really feel like Sawyer has a grasp on how the world would react to the possible assassination of an American President and the destruction of the White House. Once Jerrison is taken to the hospital the Secret Service seems awfully laissez-faire about security measures. Despite a series of incidents that, in the real world, would result in a security shit storm that sees Secret Service agents placed around the President a hundred feet deep, people in TRIGGERS seem to come and go as they please. Hell, hospital security guards even get to keep their sidearms, despite the fact that there’s clearly an ongoing conspiracy to destabilize the American government.  The gravity of the situation, the fundamental change of the American status quo is glossed over or completely overshadowed by smaller events. Key characters behave in a manner that is at odds with the events that are taking place around them. Their priorities never match up with their personalities.
I always enjoy reading Robert J. Sawyer. Yes, his books are more intellectual exercise than gripping sci-fi drama, but he has struck a balance that works for him and most times works for me as well. Unfortunately this time around I feel the normally rock steady author has delivered an unfocused and uneven final product. I look forward to his next book and hope that he can recommandeer the style and presence that has served him so well in the past.  

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