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Triggers by Robert J. Sawyer
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781937007164
Date: 03 April 2012 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Robert Sawyer, the eternally optimistic Canadian science fiction author, turns from saving humanity from itself through AI oversight in his recent WWW trilogy (Wake, Watch, Wonder) to a story where we bootstrap ourselves through a psychic connection that spreads like a virus. Science fiction has tended to shy away from stories involving telepathy or cosmic connections, but Sawyer takes the classic setup; an experiment gets interrupted by a powerful outside surge, and spins it into an acceptable premise involving quantum mechanics, brain stimulation, and a fair sized EMP (Electro-Magnetic-Pulse) bomb going off all at once. A small group of people become mentally connected, but instead of flashing forward as he did in his 1999 novel, they're getting flashbacks--just not their own.

Set in the near future, Triggers is a mash up political-techno-thriller-SF novel, which opens with an assassination attempt on the US President which puts the him in an operating room near where Dr. Ranjip Singh, using an experimental technique to rid an Iraqi war vet of the horrific images that haunt him.* Everything's going as well as could be hoped, until a terrorist bomb takes out the White House, a bomb with a significant EMP component. When the pulse hits Singh's rig everyone within a radius of a few dozen feet is hit by an unexpected effect, linking their minds to one other person in the group's memories.

When the President thinks he's dying, he's not surprised to see the memories of a lifetime flash before him; but he'd expected that they'd be his memories at least. Actually, he is surprised, as Sawyer makes a point of telling us that the Republican president is a closet atheist, but after what he's just gone through, that might change.

The setup the author has created, that you have a small group of people who are linked to only one other person in the group, and that the links are only one way, gives him a lot to work with, and it's a lot of fun to watch the group unravel the lines that now connect them. Between that and a plot that would have fit right in on a season of 24, you get a fast paced read in what could be today's DC.

Susan Dawson is the lead Secret Service agent on the scene when the president gets zapped, and suddenly she's remembering the life of Ranjip Singh, the researcher whose gear reached out and touched a handful of lives. That's handy, because it helps her put two and two together when people start acting odd, coming up with Sherlock Holmes's edict to resort to the improbable when it's the only explanation that fits.

Just under two dozen people are suddenly linked, and when one of them is the President of the United States, it's a matter of national security. Especially when the President knows that the country is about to launch a terrible reprisal for terrorist activities and it would be very inconvenient for the news to get out. Exactly who's linked to the President is a mystery, at least for a while, and it turns out that not everyone wants to admit who they've connected to, for better or for worse.

For most of the book, the one way connections within the group suffice to offer enough intrigue to make it fun. In fact, it's a very good read, but the author can't stop himself from going further than he needs, and about halfway through he decides to make the psychic connections viral, spreading by contact at first, then by what looks like some sort of critical mass effect. I would have been just as happy with the complications and opportunities that the original connections offered.

Published before the recent election, actually near the start of the campaigns, Triggers gave the author a chance to vent on a wide range of social and political issues, while having fun writing a 24 style story.  There are a lot of similar elements to his WWW series, but mediated by group consciousness rather than machine intelligence, and though the book is no match to those novels in terms of depth, it's a fun and occasionally thought provoking read.

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* It might be some other Middle East conflict, but we'll call it Iraq for simplicity.

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