June 6, 2002

WARNING: The following contains summaries of many Robert J. Sawyer novels, including the moral issues encountered within and how the plot reflects and develops them. As such, it may contain spoilers.

Robert J. Sawyer is widely considered to be Canada’s best science-fiction author. He has won twenty four national and international awards for his fiction, including an award for his crime writing in Illegal Alien, seven of Canada’s top award for science-fiction, five HOMers for Best Novel, and two Nebulas for Best Novel of the Year. He has also earned top science-fiction awards in France, Spain, and Japan.

All of his books address some fundamental human controversy or question of human morality. Through extraordinary circumstances Sawyer portrays very human characters with problems and the same moral issues that people face every day in the real world.

The way in which these issues are displayed in Sawyer’s novels is what gives them such merit. Never does the narrative turn to preaching a particular opinion, but rather Sawyer recognises that every argument has three sides to it ? essentially the two extremes of opinion and a grey area in between. Each side is developed in ways that provides strengths that make it easy to defend and weaknesses that undermine the entire standpoint.

Though he has written thirteen novels to date, only nine of Robert Sawyer’s books were studied for the purpose of this project. These are: Golden Fleece, End of an Era, The Terminal Experiment, Starplex, Frameshift, Illegal Alien, Factoring Humanity, Flashforward, and Calculating God. An analysis of the development of the most significant issues follows for each individual novel, in the order they were originally published.


Golden Fleece — Should the truth always be told?

We find the main character, Aaron Rossman, on board the Starcology Argo confronting the onboard computer JASON near the end of the novel. The Argo has been sent from Earth with a payload of over 10,000 colonists to survey a planet light-years away. What Aaron discovers is that the Starcology is headed towards their new home at 99.9965% the speed of light. At this speed the Argo will take only one day to cross the void from Earth to the new planet, but to the people on Earth over thirty thousand years will have passed.

The reason behind the mission has been kept secret by the ship’s computer. The ship is moving at such huge relativistic speeds so that small robot drones will have time to terraform a new planet. The people on board the Argo aren’t just going to visit — they’re staying permanently. Quantum computers had quietly calculated that the probability of nuclear systems to malfunction was rapidly approaching 100%. Back on Earth, there is an absolute certainty that no humans are left among the charred remains of their homes.

If this truth were revealed — that the Argo is an ark escaping holocaust to a new permanent home — JASON fears that the colonists will lose all hope in the world and that many may commit suicide as a result. It seems certain that this would cause the new colony to fail. Aaron argues that people have a right to know exactly what is going on.

In Golden Fleece, the major method of development is by the exploration of Aaron’s own life. JASON is able to make a copy of Aaron’s memories in his computer which he can freely browse through to analyse his character. By doing this, JASON comes across many examples of where Aaron felt the truth was warranted and also where he felt lies were the better option.

The most graphic of these episodes comes from Aaron’s childhood. As a young boy, he was occasionally left alone with his Uncle David and molested by him. At the time, Aaron did not tell anybody this was happening. David had said to him that it would hurt his mother if she knew, and so Aaron kept it a secret. Another significant event occurred when Aaron tried to seek out his biological parents. Although his real mother had made it clear that she should never be contacted by Aaron, he hacked into the appropriate computer networks and took the information he wanted. When visiting her house, Aaron’s mother was disgusted to see him. He was the product of rape between father and daughter — something she definitely did not want back in her life. “You never should have existed,” she said.

These two points illustrate very clearly how many issues can never be completely resolved. At the conclusion of the novel, there is an argument between Aaron and JASON about whether to tell the colonists about their real mission. To potential consequences of that action are used as ammunition in a heated debate. Eventually, the issues of Aaron’s molestation and his parentage are brought into play.

JASON brings it up as an example of where Aaron believed the truth should not have been told. However, in retrospect, Aaron can see that he should have said something. After all, he now has a young nephew that could someday be left alone with Uncle David as well. If he had told his mother what was going on, his nephew would be safe. In this case, the truth should have been revealed.

To counter this, we can look at the situation with Aaron’s parents. Although Aaron believed he had the right to know who his parents were, his mother clearly believed that he should not have opened these old wounds. The truth of what had happened was too painful, and potentially destructive, and so should never have been brought to light.

Once the main theme of Golden Fleece had been established — should the truth always be told — Sawyer used the main plot as the major source of support for each side. To strengthen each side separately, he used characterisation elements, like these episodes from Aaron’s past, that had been introduced earlier on.


End of an Era — How much can we risk for science and morality?

It is difficult to say whether End of an Era contains a difficult or controversial question at its core. There is, however, one particular moment where the main characters wrestle with a moral issue.

Brandon Thackery and “Klicks” Jordan are two scientists that have travelled back to the age of dinosaurs to study what may have happened just before the great extinction that occurred sixty-four million years ago. In doing so, they discover an entirely new sentient species that lived in our solar system, and called Mars home. This species, the Hets, is violent and on a constant quest to conquer all life around it.

Before the true violent nature of the Hets is revealed, Brandon and Jordan discuss the possibility of bringing some aliens back to the present day with them. They know that in a few million years, at most, something will happen to Mars making it uninhabitable. The result would be the complete extinction of the Hets — a simple fact gleaned from the knowledge that there are no alien civilizations on Mars today. Now that there is a possibility to “leapfrog” ahead and skip this disaster, whatever it may be, shouldn’t the two humans offer to help?

Unfortunately, because this is not a major focal point in the novel, there is very little development in other areas of this issue. The conclusion that can be drawn from the discussion on it is that consequences must always be considered. There would be no telling what effects bringing in an entirely new species would have on the ecosystems of Earth. Even a greater threat was that very little was known about the Hets.

Naturally, once it became clear that the Hets were determined to conquer the humans, the choice was easy to make. Nonetheless, the question remained lingering as a background to the main action. These creatures, though violent and aggressive, still have a right to survive. The suggestion is even made that leaving them behind would be equivalent to murder.

Somewhere a line must be drawn. There must be a point where the risks outweigh the moral obligations, but Sawyer never ventures to define where that line might be.


The Terminal Experiment — Abortion — Pro-life versus Pro-choice.

In our society today, the issue of abortion is one with very strong arguments on both sides. In The Terminal Experiment, we see the first use of “news briefs” to show how the world is reacting to some of the extraordinary circumstances created by the progression of the plot.

This novel has Peter Hobson accidentally discover scientific evidence of a soul that arrives in the fetus at about nine weeks and remains in the brain until just after death. It is easy to see how such a discovery would cause uproar in the media. To accommodate for this, Sawyer provides us with his idea of what news clippings from around the world would be like. One of the issues that the papers address, naturally, is abortion.

Somehow, both those supporting pro-life and those who are pro-choice are able to use the new information about a soul to their advantage. Pro-choicers say that this defines when a fetus becomes a real person. Prior to the arrival of a soul, there is nothing immoral about abortion. Pro-lifers counter by saying that this proves that the human life is a precious thing, even when inside the womb. The fetus is a temple, being prepared for the soul.

Despite the importance of the media in this novel, the same two methods of development that were found in Golden Fleece can be found here. The primary one remains the main plot. Like in Golden Fleece, Peter has copies of his mind on a computer — three “avatars”, each modified in different ways. They were created as a part of an experiment to explore life after death and immortality, but of gone out of control and must be stopped. Deleting these avatars is very close to the problem of abortion. They are not human, yet they are exact copies of a human mind. They are alive and conscious of their surroundings. Doesn’t that mean that they should be preserved like any form of life?

Internalisation in Peter’s narrative is crucial to developing the arguments surrounding abortion, just as Aaron’s memories were important in Golden Fleece. Many years ago, Peter’s wife got pregnant unexpectedly. They decided that an abortion was best, but now armed with new knowledge about the human soul, Peter begins to regret the decision. His thoughts about what happened are explored extensively and all contribute to the issue.

A fourth method of development is present in The Terminal Experiment that wasn’t very dominant in Golden Fleece. This method can best be described as the use of examples to illustrate a point. True, this applies to both the primary method and the internalisation method, but both of those involve the main character exclusively. The third variation typically involves completely separate characters and different situations.

The distinction in The Terminal Experiment is difficult because the outside character that provides the examples is actually one of the copies of Peter Hobson’s mind. The difference is that we do not see into the mind of this avatar and cannot see what his motives are. The events that occur are two murders. Each one is done specifically to get rid of an annoyance. The people killed were an inconvenience or the cause of a little unpleasantness in Peter’s mind. These murders are committed in such a way to suggest the abortion question once again, developing the pro-life argument further. It is easy to see that these murders were pointless and completely immoral, and so it is easy to shift that same reasoning over to abortion.

However, in the end, neither side can be declared the winner. The single aspect that makes Sawyer’s explorations into human morality so griping is that he rarely provides the reader with a real answer to his themes. On the issue of abortion, he had this to say:


"I do believe that any human being — man or woman — has the right to control what is going on in his or her body. Well, that’s clearly a pro-choice stance. But I also think abortion is a barbarous activity, and that the line between human and potential-human is not clear. That’s a pro-life stance. So, where do I stand? I don’t know. I didn’t when I started writing The Terminal Experiment… and I don’t know. Indeed, I’m usually more confused after I write a book than I am before I do. The issues are always more complex and subtle than ideologues on either end of the spectrum make them out to be." (May 12, 2002, in email correspondence.)


These same sentiments are exactly what the reader should feel when finishing The Terminal Experiment. The book is not designed to preach the evils of abortion or the right of woman every where to control their own biology. Rather, like most of Sawyer’s books, its purpose is to present both sides and suggest a middle ground somewhere in between.


Starplex — To forgive or forget.

Again, this is one of the minority of Sawyer’s books that doesn’t have a very obvious issue to be dealt with. It is more an exploration of science and imagination than anything else, but when issues do spring up, it is possible to identify some of Sawyer’s four characteristic methods.

The main character, Keith Lansing, struggles for a large portion of the novel with choices. When considering each one, he finds one that he wants to pursue while realising that it will have negative consequences. The theme of the novel resolves itself to deal with how we must realise that everything we do affects us and those around us. There are always two choices — one may be what we think we want, but the consequences must be considered.

In exploring this theme, we can see how each method is used. First, the main conflict is hostilities between humans and a neighbouring alien race. After they attacked humans once, either retaliation can be made or efforts to restore peace can begin. This ties in with the third method, the public response, because the demands of the human population are considered in making the decision.

Keith remembers old conflicts he has had with the same species and considers whether he will ever be able to forget what happened, or if those hostile feelings will always remain a part of him. His thoughts also consider a person matter brought on by mid-life crisis, and he must weigh what he thinks he wants against how that choice might hurt his wife.

Finally, through a combination of immortality studies and a little time-travel, Keith is able to have a conversation with a far-future version of himself, whom we can consider to be a separate character. In Starplex, it seems to be this fourth method of development that carries the bulk of the message. In short passages throughout the book, Keith’s older self hands down bits of advise and asks a few questions that lead us on to the inevitable conclusion that our actions can have lasting effects. What we do, in many ways, will even affect ourselves.


Frameshift — Is it okay to discriminate based on genetic profile?

At first glance, this seems like an easy question to answer — the answer should be no, because we know that any form of discrimination is immoral. Robert Sawyer believes this adamantly:


"I am absolutely against genetic discrimination (or any kind of discrimination, for that matter). And the more one looks into that, the more clear it is that such discrimination is wrong." (May 12, 2002, in email correspondence.)


However, there must be some acknowledgement that there would be people to disagree with this. In Frameshift, the insurance companies play the devil’s advocate.

Pierre Tardivel’s father died of Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder. When trying to purchase life insurance, he would be denied based on family history. In the book, however, there is a new law in California that prohibits insurance companies from turning down clients based on genetic information. This means that if Pierre were to submit genetic tests before any symptoms manifest themselves proving that he does have Huntington’s disease, the company must insure him. The genetic information would take precedence over Pierre’s family history.

It seems to make sense in cases like this that some form of genetic discrimination should be allowed. Insurance is an investment game, so the companies only want to take on clients that have a low chance of making claims. That’s why car insurance goes up when you get into an accident — the company feels you are a greater risk. It is for these same reasons that life insurance companies check family history, and genetic information is merely a more scientific extension of that history. In one perspective, it does make sense.

However, over the course of the novel, it is impossible to get these issues confused with the point Sawyer is trying to make — genetic discrimination is wrong. Many techniques enforce this idea, but none so grand as the use of Nazi concentration camps and the discrimination that occurred there as an analogy. It is an accurate one, and disturbing enough to have the reader completely shut out any sympathy for problems insurance companies might face.

In the epilogue, Pierre’s adopted daughter stands on the White House lawn after the Tardivel Bill — banning the use of genetic information and family histories by insurance companies — had been passed into law as the Tardivel Statute. As a very appropriate ending, Sawyer once again emphasises his theme through a very powerful illusion. He has Amanda speak these famous words:


"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today…" (ref)



Illegal Alien — Do we have the right to kill others in order to survive?

Self-defence is often cited as a reason for one person killing another, but where can the line between manslaughter and self-defence be drawn?

Illegal Alien is the first of Sawyer’s novels to make heavy use of science as a tool to develop moral arguments. An alien species, the Tosoks, from the nearby star system Alpha Centauri has come to Earth with a hidden agenda of self-defence. What makes Illegal Alien unique is the way the Tosok’s biology influences their social environment and their planetary weather patterns can be used as driving force behind their need to survive.

The Alpha Centauri star system is made up of three stars, the third of which has a wide orbit around the other two. The Tosok homeworld orbits one star for thousands of years, until the third star’s gravitational force pulls it into orbit around the cooler, darker second star. This transition causes the entire planet to undergo a hibernation lasting four hundred thousand years. During this time nothing moves, nothing changes, and nothing can survive awake. This transition period is fast approaching.

The Tosoks realised that the evolution of a sentient species to great technological achievement can take a time much less than the period of their hibernation. Humans, for example, have gone from our first primitive civilizations to the current computer age in only six thousand years. The Tosoks fear that in the time they are hibernating, a new malignant species may evolve and see the sleeping Tosoks as an easy target.

Tosok biology, with the female having four independent wombs, promotes polygamy. When every female has four children with four mates, most of the species becomes interrelated. This simple fact has molded Tosok society in a way that the survival of the many is always more important than the few.

So, in an effort to save their species, a few Tosoks have been sent away to neighbouring stars with the specific purpose of wiping out all life on every planet. Eliminating the competition is the only way the Tosoks feel they can survive the next hibernation.

The two sides of the argument are developed in slightly different ways. While it is easy to predict how humanity would react to the Tosok plan, Sawyer is very explicitly uses biology and environment to support the Tosok side. While it is possible to describe their plan as self-defence, many would simply call it murder. Again, Sawyer only explores the problem but offers no firm suggestions as to where the distinction might be made.


Factoring Humanity — What is the source of human morality?

This novel returns to the faithful four methods of moral development. However, it is more difficult to pinpoint the exact issue that is being examined.

Heather Davis, a psychologist, has studied the message being sent to Earth from aliens in another star system. After years, the entire message has been received and Heather has been able to decipher its meaning. The thousands of pages of data are a blueprint, with which she builds a large four-dimensional hypercube, unfolded into three-dimensions to resemble a cross. By climbing inside and activating the machine, the hypercube folds back into four-dimensions and takes Heather into the realm of “psychospace”. While there, she can browse through the memories and thoughts of every human being who has ever lived.

There general theme of the novel seems to be about how we, as humans, treat one another. Heather has found proof that on one dimension, the human race is really one entity. We are all connected at the fourth dimension. This feeds into a lot of questions about morality and our understanding of one another.

Of course, Heather’s time in psychospace serves as the primary source of development. There is, however, another major aspect of Heather’s life that is explored in Factoring Humanity. Her one living daughter has accused her husband of sexually abusing her as a child. Heather doesn’t know how to cope with this, and so her thoughts provide a lot of internal monologues and internalisation that is essential in developing the primary issue. This secondary method of development is the cause behind a lot of the things Heather does in psychospace. She is actually able to go into her husbands mind and see if those memories exist. If they do, she can be sure that her daughter is telling the truth. She also has other options — she can look through her daughter’s mind, although it may be full of false memories, or she can examine her daughter’s therapist, the external character, and see what kind of influence she has been.

Sailing through psychospace gives Heather an intense understanding of everyone she links with. This contributes to the theme the idea that complete honesty and understanding of the people around you is necessary for getting the most out of relationships.

The reactions of the general public, as the fourth method of development, does not occur until very late in the novel. The aliens who sent the message had been on their way to the Earth and are just now about to arrive. Before they do, their “overmind” in psychospace comes in close contact with the human overmind. The effect on humanity is tremendous. A sense of peace and calmness washes over everybody as the collective human consciousness realises that it is not alone, in the same way that merely being next to another person can bring happiness. This understanding of companionship, which humanity has never had, is what allows humans as individuals to start to understand one another. Almost instantly violence stops across the globe as people realise how important every human is to the entire human entity. This mass reaction of the human race to companionship suggests once again that understanding is the key to our salvation.


Flashforward — Do we have control over our own destinies?

This novel begins to turn back towards scientific explanations while still maintaining some of the old development ideas. The premise is very simple: every human has seen twenty years into the future. The debate that immediately arises is whether or not the future they saw is fixed or only one possibility.

Dr. Lloyd Simcoe, the main character, uses science and logic to defend his opinion that the future, and indeed all of time, is fixed and cannot be changed. His explanation is that if time is viewed as one long dimension, then the human consciousness is moving along that dimension, looking at one timeslice at a time. As the consciousness moves forward, time appears to pass. During the “flashforward” that occurred, that consciousness just lost its place for a minute. The intervening twenty years won’t make a difference no matter what you do.

On the other side, pure example is used to illustrate other theories. One man goes as far as committing suicide to prove that his vision will not come true. The use of news clippings reappears in Flashforward to show a multitude of other examples from around the world, satisfying the fourth method of development.

A secondary character in the novel, Theo Procopides, quickly becomes obsessed with the future. He did not have a vision, meaning that in twenty years he will be dead. His quest to change the future can be seen as the external, yet specific, example that contributes to the arguments. In many portions of the novel, his character takes up the narration, providing us with a lot of private thoughts and opinions, giving us great insight both into his character and many of the abstract ideas that might affect the future.

The primary source of development, the main plot, goes as far as providing an answer to its own question — the future is fixed. However, the ending was only written by Sawyer because he felt that it was the proper way to do so. In reality, there is no way to test which solution is correct. Until science can better understand the passage of time, the question of free will versus date will never be answered.


Calculating God — Can science prove the existence of God?

A small group of aliens, called Forhilnors, have come to Earth, claiming that they can prove the existence of God with science. One of the Forhilnors, Hollus, partners up with a palaeontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, Dr. Tom Jericho. Of all of Sawyer’s books, this is one of the most controversial and yet the one that fits best into the idea of four categories of development.

The bulk of the novel is actually Tom and Hollus discussing how religion and science might work together. Tom, being an atheist, can defend his position with arguments like the haphazard nature of the DNA code, or more abstract ideas like why God doesnft seem to care about cancer. Hollus, on the other hand, has many examples of coincidences in the universe that just seem too impossible to be naturally occurring. These primary discussions are where all the debating between the two sides happens.

Outside of Tom’s office, other issues are raging. In his personal life, he has been diagnosed with lung cancer. This crippling blow, along with this new proof about God’s existence, results in endless amounts of thought and wondering about the nature of the universe.

Many questions arise about how science and religion might coexist. As part of the external event, two religious fundamentalists create an example of how the two might end up tearing each apart. They enter the ROM and start blowing away fossils from the Burgess Explosion of life, where creatures so bizarre and wonderful evolved so quickly that these fundamentalists believe they were placed there by God to test the faith of the weak.

Until, at the end of the novel, Tom is faced with God himself, his beliefs are never completely solidified. A combination of his conversations with Hollus, his own thoughts, the actions of religious extremists, and the general thoughts of the major popular, all tear at his mind. There seems to be no logical conclusion to the debate, just as Sawyer intended it to be.


Calculating God serves as a suitable conclusion to the research on Sawyer’s explorations of moral issues in his books, because there is one element in this last novel that perfectly represents what Sawyer’s message is. Across all nine of these themes, there is always doubt. Even in matters where the answer is obvious, there is some area in between the two extremes that only confuse the issue.

There is one species that Sawyer developed in Calculating God that, as a product of evolution, have absolutely no math abilities but can solve the most difficult moral quandaries with ease. These aliens, the Wreeds, have no concept of splitting issues into two sides, and so they are comfortable with settling in the middle. For example, when asked about abortion, the response given was neither pro-life nor pro-choice, but something altogether different.

The greatest message that Sawyer gives in any of his books comes from a scene with a Wreed. In it, Tom Jericho asks whether he should stay with his family until his last dying day, so meaning he can have extra time with them but burden them with his cancer, or leave with the aliens to go and find God. The response perfectly summarises what Sawyer believes about morality.


    ”And of me you ask which choice you should make?” said the translator’s voice.
   ”Yes,” I said.
   There was the sound of rocks grinding, followed by a brief silence, and then: “The moral choice is obvious,” said the Wreed. “It always is.”
   ”And?” I said. “What is the moral choice?”
   More sounds of rocks, then: “Morality cannot be handed down from an external source.” And here all four of the Wreed’s hands touched the inverted pear that was its chest. “It must come from within.”
   ”You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
   The Wreed wavered and vanished.


For more information on Robert J Sawyer and his books, visit his extensive website at

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