Factoring Humanity, Robert J. Sawyer
By Natasja Hellenthal
In 2007, a signal is detected coming from the Alpha Centauri system. Mysterious, unintelligible data streams in for ten years. Heather Davis a professor in the University of Toronto psychology department, has devoted her career to deciphering the message. Her estranged husband, Kyle, is working on the development of artificial intelligence systems and new computer technology utilizing quantum effects to produce a near-infinite number of calculations simultaneously.
When Heather achieves a breakthrough, the message reveals a startling new technology that rips the barriers of space and time, holding the promise of a new stage of human evolution. In concert with Kyle’s discoveries of the nature of consciousness, the key to limitless exploration — or the end of the human race — appears close at hand.
This Hugo Award Finalist sci-fi drama from 1998 was fascinating to read. I recently finished it and I placed it on my list of top ten best books. It made me think about it for weeks after! What a page-turner!
It’s set, in what was then 19 years in the future, 2017. The author did not go overboard in his imaginings. Some technological innovations have occurred and a few fictional historical events are mentioned, but otherwise it is a very plausible read.
But most of all, rather than it being a galactic concept of war and peace, this non-violent story resolves around ideas such as alien first contact, quantum mechanics, and the human overmind, but does so on a deep level. The characters are easy to relate to and the author has clearly invested in them.
Factoring Humanity has two main storylines: it tells the story of Heather and Kyle Davis, a recently separated couple who both teach at the University of Toronto, she in psychology, he in computer science.
The first few pages make for a slightly uncomfortable read as their nineteen year old daughter, Becky, accuses Kyle of abusing her. At first, Heather entertains horrid doubts. Poor Kyle, meanwhile, knows he’s innocent–but, painfully, wonders whether he’s somehow repressing memories of abusing Becky (their other daughter, Mary, inexplicably committed suicide). Be patient as it is not so dark as you’d think.
The other story line is the science fiction part which is excellently intertwined with the family drama and never too difficult to follow: In 2007 a signal is detected coming from the Alpha Centauri system. Mysterious, unintelligible data streams in for ten years. By 2017 only the first few have been deciphered by Heather and her team.
Meanwhile, Kyle’s attempt to demonstrate a working quantum computer fails, which in spite of his best efforts has not yet reached human equivalent awareness. Shady people are trying to buy his ideas for great money to keep him quiet as he is too close to his breakthrough. When Heather deciphers the Centauran messages revealing a startling new technology which rips the barriers of space and time, holding the promise of a new stage of human evolution, the story became so intriguing I couldn’t stop reading.
For me the story really started to enfold and the adventure has some surprising twists and turns. It kept me guessing all the way through to the end. It is such an original, positive-future scenarios story about first contact with an alien civilisation through the 4th dimension which reminded me of Carl Sagan’s Contact written around the same time, interesting enough!
Also the healing aspect of a family drama from dark to light and the psychological aspects are perfectly told. This is great storytelling mixed with complex, yet never heavy, science at its best!
Or maybe you’ve already read this book? What did you think?
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