I just finished another novel by one of my favorite science fiction writers, Robert J. Sawyer, and it is — I am sad to say — the biggest disappointments I’ve ever had from his writing. The novel is Refactoring Humanity and is ostensibly a first contact story, which is one of my favorite sub-genres of SF. But the first contact elements of the novel are overwhelmed by the cringe-worthy back stories of the characters.
Of the three main characters — Kyle, Heather and their grown daughter Becky — I am not sure whose back story is more depressing and triggering. Early on, we find out that Kyle and Heather are married but living apart to give each other some space. Soon after, Becky accuses Kyle of having sexually molested her when she was a teen. This made my skin crawl. (I almost stopped reading at this point.) Then, almost immediately on top of that, we find out that the couple had had a second daughter who committed suicide. I did stop reading at that point, wondering if the science fiction elements were even worth the pain of watching these otherwise two-dimensional characters deal with tragedies and crimes that would send a normal person to a mental hospital and/or prison.
But I did decide to go on, just to see where the first contact tropes enter the story. It turns out that Heather, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, is one of hundreds of scientists researching strange signals being sent from Alpha Centauri. Kyle, meanwhile, is also a professor at U of T, specializing in quantum computing.
These two threads of the story get combined with the darkness of the family drama and trauma. Some have said that this leads to an optimistic conclusion. I guess, maybe, if you looked at through a dark lens, you might be able to get there, but I certainly couldn’t. The rest of the information on the novel would be spoilers, so I won’t go there.
I’m generally thick-skinned when it comes to tragic characters, but nothing here seems to work. I simply cannot recommend Factoring Humanity.
I do, however, highly recommend Sawyer in general. I have found his novels to be incredibly insightful and scientifically fascinating as a rule, just not this one.
On a scale of one to ten platypuses, I would give this novel three; picking out which three would be hard because I wouldn’t want to subject a platypus to this novel.
Peace and hair grease,
June 19, 2021