|Epiphyte Book Review||up to review index|
Factoring Humanity is the latest novel by Hugo Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer. It's very similar to Carl Sagan's Contact in many ways: a female researcher deciphers an alien message into a blueprint; she builds a construct from the diagram; cosmic dippiness results.
Heather Davis is a psychology professor who specializes in the alien radio messages that began arriving from Alpha Centauri in 2007. The first few messages were quickly translated into simple chemical formulae, but when the following messages proved indecipherable, public interest faded. Ten years after the arrival of the first message, the alien transmission ends. At this point, Heather has been separated from her husband Kyle since the suicide of their older daughter a year ago; now her personal life is shattered again when their remaining daughter accuses Kyle of molesting her. The secrets in the alien code turn out to be the key to proving Kyle's guilt or innocence.
The alien contact is actually tangential to the exploration of the nature of human consciousness. Sawyer also does some interesting things with current pop science issues, including RSA encryption and the possible quantum nature of consciousness. He pays a great deal of attention to the problem of factoring very large numbers, and the effect a generic solution would have on computer security worldwide.
Unfortunately, Sawyer isn't a subtle enough writer to do justice to the ambitious themes he tackles in Factoring Humanity. Despite his obvious efforts to build complex, rounded characters, they're just not very engaging, and their interpersonal problems seemed forced. Heather's scientific breakthroughs rely heavily on coincidence. Sawyer also tends to use choppy, overdramatic sentences, like the voiceover in a pain reliever commercial.
However, the story is drawn along by puzzles and ideas, and Heather's discoveries evoke a rare sense of wonder. It's occasionally difficult to take Factoring Humanity seriously, but Sawyer's ideas will stay with you.
-- Christina Schulman.
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