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Factoring Humanity by Robert J Sawyer (HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 348 pages, paperback; published 4 January 1999.)

As with most people, my experience of alternative universes (thus far) has been limited to regrets and to dreams of personal transformation. To wit: in an alternative universe I will be rich - post-Lottery rich. I will be an inch taller; a stone (or so) lighter; fitter, younger, and I will have a straight horizon of hair at the top of my forehead, as distinct from these silly lagoons that are yawning wider as I slowly ape my father's style of no-hairdo. I will not have given up the piano. I will have a metabolism for which cold beer and chicken is the finest possible sustenance...

One gets the idea, of course. The very thought of an alternative universe can be a panacea - or a placebo, depending on how one views the matter. And for Kyle, the protagonist of Factoring Humanity, it certainly becomes something to hope for. When he is accused of having molested his two girls when they were children, the accusation comes only from one daughter, Becky, because the other one has already killed herself, some time earlier. Astonished by the charge, Kyle insists (predictably but powerfully) that he is innocent, and even offers to sit a polygraph test - only to be told that such things can be faked. He is alarmed that his estranged wife, Heather, does not seem to know who to believe. Kyle thinks that perhaps, in another universe, he might have been guilty of the crimes. In coded, guarded terms he tells Cheetah, a non-human assistant: "There's a universe in which I return the money to the person who lost it, but there's also a universe in which I keep it for myself. Now, if there are bound to be two universes, then why the heck shouldn't I be the guy who keeps the money?" Many doubts and suppositions are chattering in our hero's brain... Kyle also chews on the matter of suppressed and planted memories. Has the young woman's therapist deliberately placed untruths in Becky's head? Much later on, Kyle even wonders if it is his own memory which is errant...

Accusations of abuse are not the only problems in Kyle's life. His work in scientific fields is not going exactly how he would have liked it to either, which might not be surprising, given his occasional statements, such as the following: "down deep, at some basic level, I just don't buy quantum mechanics. I feel like a bit of a charlatan." This is a case, perhaps, of "physician, heal thyself." If one cannot believe in one's own material, then no expectation can be made that anyone else will. Fortunately, Sawyer himself seems dedicated to his ideas, and spreads his messages and themes with gusto. Kyle is heartbreakingly naive in many ways, and puts his foot wrong on several occasions: he even chooses a colleague with whom to speak about the accusations on the basis that said colleague was also involved in a scandal, a little while earlier. (They mull together on the subject of Star Trek, a conversation which comes across as perfectly men-in-bar-boring and realistic!)

Heather, Kyle's wife, is also a scientist. Furthermore, she is similarly frustrated with her work - or at least, she is to begin with. She collects messages from space: a baffling code of monstrous proportions, her study of which makes her popular with the press. What are the aliens trying to say to the good people of the world, and to this good woman in Canada? Through an amalgam of rigorous thinking and sheer bloodymindedness, Heather eventually cracks the puzzle, and enlists the help of another man (for whom she develops romantic feelings, however briefly) to build the tesseracts and shapes that the information seems to be willing her to construct.

It transpires that a scientist names Huneker, who ostensibly committed suicide for reasons connected to his homosexuality, years previous, had received some messages from far away himself. Kyle is approached by a representative of a "consortium" (and Sawyer makes way too much fuss about the characters' various pronunciations of this word), who wants him to continue working on what Huneker left behind - for a handsome fee, of course. Millions of dollars. At a similar place in the novel, Heather has developed a way of surfing the memories of humanity, present and past - "the overmind..."

"If she was right, the Centaurs hadn't sent information about their alien world. Rather, they'd given humanity a mirror so that humans could finally see themselves." After disposing with the choices of Einstein, Christ, Socrates, Cleopatra, Stephen Hawking, Marie Curie and even her dead daughter, Mary, as possible minds to peek into, Heather decides that the memory that she most wants to view is that belonging to Kyle.

Did he molest the girls, or did he not?

This book is enjoyable for several reasons. The writing is crisp, clear, and economic. The plot is original, but has the warmth (paradoxically) of familiarity, as though the story was told before - indeed - to some form of collective subconscious to which the reader has had free access. It has the feel, to be sure, of a novel from the Golden Age, but with fresh revelations and surprises. Sawyer himself describes the novel (his tenth, incredibly, from a man who is not even forty) as a "near-future philosophical science fiction story of first contact, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence." But the concerns are altogether contemporary, I think, because Factoring Humanity is equally about the family; about trust, and about the dangers of knowledge (with detailed analyses of pop culture thrown in along the way: I Love Lucy, Star Trek in its various incarnations, Jerry Seinfeld, Mary Higgins Clark...) How much should one know about another person, even a loved one? Aliens, perhaps are as strange to the human characters as family members can be to one another: this seems to be one of the subtexts of the book. It all comes down to a matter of scale.

Review by David Mathew.

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© David Mathew 3 April 1999