[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Opening Chapters


by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2005 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award!

Hardcover: Tor, April 2005, ISBN 0-765-31107-0
Paperpack: Tor, January 2006, ISBN 0-765-34975-2


March 2018

       There wasn't anything special about this fight. Honest to God, there wasn't. Dad and I had argued a million times before, but nothing awful had happened. Oh, he'd thrown me out of the house a couple of times, and when I was younger he used to send me to my room or cut off my allowance. But nothing like this had ever occurred. I keep reliving the moment in my mind, haunted by it. It's no consolation that he isn't haunted by it, that he probably doesn't even remember it. No consolation at all.

       My father's grandparents had made a fortune in the brewing industry — if you know Canada at all, you know Sullivan's Select and Old Sully's Premium Dark. We'd always had a shitload of money.

       "Shitload." That's the way I talked back then; I guess remembering it is bringing back my old vocabulary. When I'd been a teenager, I didn't care about money. In fact, I agreed with most Canadians that the profits made by big corporations were obscene. Even in supposedly egalitarian Canada, the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer, and I'd hated it. Back then, I'd hated a lot of things.

       "Where the hell did you get this?" my dad had shouted, holding the fake ID I'd used to buy pot at the local Mac's. He was standing up; he always did that when we fought. Dad was scrawny, but I guess he felt his two meters of height were intimidating.

       We were in his den at the house in Port Credit. Port Credit was what you came to if you continued west along Lake Ontario from Toronto; it was a classy neighborhood, and even then — this would have been, what?, 2018, I guess — it was still mostly white. Rich and white. The window looked out over the lake, which that day had been gray and choppy.

       "Friend of mine made it," I said, without even looking at the ID card.

       "Well, you're not seeing that friend anymore. Christ's sake, Jake, you're only seventeen." The legal age for buying alcohol and marijuana in Ontario, then and now, was nineteen; the legal age for buying tobacco is eighteen. Go figure.

       "You can't tell me who I can see," I said, looking out the window. Seagulls were pirouetting above the waves. If they could get high, I didn't see why I couldn't.

       "Hell I can't," snapped my father. He had a long face and a full head of dark hair, graying at the temples. If this was 2018, that would have made him thirty-nine. "So long as you live under my roof, you'll do as I say. Jesus, Jacob, what were you thinking? Presenting a false ID card is a major offense."

       "It's a major offense if you're a terrorist or an identity thief," I said, looking across the wide teak desk at him. "Kids get caught buying pot all the time; no one gives a damn."

       "I give a damn. Your mother gives a damn." Mom was out playing tennis. It was a Sunday — the only day Dad wasn't normally at work — and he'd gotten the call from the police station. "You keep screwing up like this, boy, and —"

       "And what? And I'll never end up like you? I pray for that." I knew I'd hit home. A vertical vein in the middle of his forehead swelled up whenever he was really pissed. I used to love it when I got the vein.

       His voice was trembling. "You ungrateful little bastard."

       "I don't need this shit," I said, turning toward the door, preparing to stalk out.

       "Damn you, boy! You're going to hear this! If you —"

       "Fuck off," I said.

       "— don't stop acting —"

       "I hate this place anyway."

       "— like an idiot, you'll —"

       "And I hate you!"

       No reply. I turned around, and saw him slumping backward into his black leather chair. When he hit it, the chair rotated half a turn.

       "Dad!" I hurried behind the desk and shook him. "Dad!" Nothing. "Oh, Christ. Oh, no. Oh, God ..." I lifted him out of the chair; there was so much adrenaline coursing through my veins from the fight that I didn't even feel his weight. Stretching out his gangly limbs on the hardwood floor, I shouted, "Dad! Come on, Dad!"

       I kicked aside a waste basket with a shredder attached; paper diamonds scattered everywhere. Crouching next to him, I felt for a pulse; he still had one — and he seemed to be breathing. But he didn't respond to anything I said.

       "Dad!" Totally out of ideas, I tried slapping him lightly on each cheek. A string of drool was hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

       I quickly rose, turned to face his desk, hit the speakerphone button, and pounded out 9-1-1. Then I crouched down beside him again.

       The phone rang three excruciating times, then: "Fire, police, or ambulance?" said a female operator, sounding small and far away.


       "Your address is —" said the operator, and she read it off. "Correct?"

       I lifted his right eyelid. His eye tracked to look at mine, thank God.

       "Yes, yes, that's right. Hurry! My father's collapsed!"

       "Is he breathing?"



       "Yes, he has one, but he's collapsed, and he's not responding to anything I say."

       "An ambulance is on its way," said the woman. "Is anyone else with you?"

       My hands were shaking. "No. I'm alone."

       "Don't leave him."

       "I won't. Oh, Christ, what's wrong with him?"

       The operator ignored the question. "Help is on its way."

       "Dad!" I said. He made a gurgling sound, but I don't think it was in response to me. I wiped away the drool and tipped his head back a bit to make sure he was getting plenty of air. "Please, Dad!"

       "Don't panic," said the woman. "Remain calm."

       "Christ, oh Christ, good Christ ..."

       The ambulance took me and my dad to the Trillium Health Centre, the nearest hospital. As soon as we got there, they transferred him to a gurney, his long legs hanging over the end. A white male doctor appeared quickly, shining a light into his eyes and tapping his knee with a small hammer — to which there was the usual reflexive response. He tried speaking to my father a few times, then called out, "Get this man a cerebral MRI, stat!" An orderly wheeled Dad off. He still hadn't said a coherent word, although he occasionally made small sounds.

       By the time Mom arrived, Dad had been moved into a bed. Standard government health care gets you a space in a ward. Dad had supplemental insurance, and so had a private room. Of course.

       "Oh, God," my mother kept saying, over and over again, holding her hands to her face. "Oh, my poor Cliff. My darling, my baby ..."

       My mother was the same age as my dad, with a round head and artificially blond hair. She was still wearing her tennis clothes — white top, short white skirt. She played a lot of tennis, and was in good shape; to my embarrassment, some of my friends thought she was hot.

       Shortly, a doctor came to see us. She was a Vietnamese woman of about fifty. Her name tag identified her as Dr. Thanh. Before she could open her mouth, my mother said, "What is it? What's wrong with him?"

       The doctor was infinitely kind — I'll always remember her. She took my mother's hand and got her to sit down. And then the woman crouched down, so she'd be at my mother's eye level. "Mrs. Sullivan," she said. "I'm so sorry. The news is not good."

       I stood behind my seated mother, with a hand on her shoulder.

       "What is it?" Mom asked. "A stroke? For God's sake, Cliff is only thirty-nine. He's too young for a stroke."

       "A stroke can happen at any age," said Dr. Thanh. "But, although technically this was a form of stroke, it's not what you're thinking of."

       "What then?"

       "Your husband has a kind of congenital lesion we call an AVM: an arteriovenous malformation. It's a tangle of arteries and veins with no interposing capillaries — normally, capillaries provide resistance, slowing down the blood-flow rate. In cases like this, the vessels have very thin walls, and so are prone to bursting. And when they do, blood pours through the brain in a torrent. In the form of AVM your husband has — called Katerinsky's syndrome — the vessels can rupture in a cascade sequence, going off like fire hoses."

       "But Cliff never mentioned ..."

       "No, no. He probably didn't know. An MRI would have shown it, but most people don't have routine MRIs until they turn forty."

       "Damn it," said my mother — who almost never swore. "We would have paid for the test! We —"

       Dr. Thanh glanced up at me, then looked into my mother's eyes. "Mrs. Sullivan, believe me, it wouldn't have made any difference. Your husband's condition is inoperable. AVMs in general affect only one in a thousand people, and Katerinsky's affects only one in a thousand of those with AVMs. The sad truth is that the principal form of diagnosis for Katerinsky's is autopsy. Your husband is actually one of the lucky ones."

       I looked over at my father, in the bed, a tube up his nose, another in his arm, his hair matted, his mouth hanging open.

       "So, he's going to be okay, then?" said my mother. "He's going to get better?"

       Dr. Thanh sounded truly sad. "No, he's not. When the blood vessels ruptured, the adjacent parts of his brain were destroyed by the jet of blood pounding into the tissue. He's ..."

       "He's what?" demanded my mother, her voice full of panic. "He's not going to be a vegetable, is he? Oh, God — my poor Cliff. Oh, Jesus God ..."

       I looked at my father, and I did something I hadn't done for five years. I started to cry. My vision began to blur, and so did my mind. As the doctor continued to talk to my mother, I heard the words "severe retardation," "total aphasia," and "institutionalize."

       He wasn't coming back. He wasn't leaving, but he wasn't coming back. And the last words of mine that ever would have registered on his consciousness were —

       "Jake." Dr. Thanh was calling my name. I wiped my eyes. She had risen and was looking at me. "Jake, how old are you?"

       I'm old enough, I thought. I'm old enough to be the man of the house. I'll take care of this, take care of my mother. "Seventeen."

       She nodded. "You should have an MRI, too, Jake."

       "What?" I said, my heart suddenly pounding. "Why?"

       Dr. Thanh lifted her delicate eyebrows, and spoke very, very softly. "Katerinsky's is hereditary."

       I felt myself starting to panic again. "You — you mean I might end up like Dad?"

       "Just get the scan done," she said. "You don't necessarily have Katerinsky's, but you might."

       I couldn't take it, I thought. I couldn't take living as a vegetable. Or maybe I did more than think it; the woman smiled kindly, wisely, as if she'd heard me say those words aloud.

       "Don't worry," Dr. Thanh said.

       "Don't worry?" My mouth was bone dry. "You said this — this disease is incurable."

       "That's true; Katerinsky's involves defects so deep in the brain that they can't be repaired surgically — yet. But you're only seventeen, and medical science is galloping ahead — why, the progress we've made since I started practicing! Who knows what they'll be able to do in another twenty or thirty years?"


Chapter 1

Twenty-Seven Years Later: August 2045

       There were perhaps a hundred people in the ballroom of Toronto's Fairmont Royal York Hotel, and at least half of them had only a short time left to live.

       Of course, being rich, those who were near death had mostly availed themselves of the best cosmetic treatments: face-lifts, physiognomic rebuilds, even a few facial transplants. I found it unsettling to see twenty-year-old visages attached to stooped bodies, but at least the transplants looked better than the ghastly tautness of one face-lift too many.

       Still, I reminded myself, these were indeed cosmetic treatments. The faux-youthful faces were attached to old, decaying bodies — bodies thoroughly worn out. Of the elderly who were present, most were standing, a few were in motorized wheelchairs, some had walkers, and one had his legs encased in powered armatures while another wore a full-body exoskeleton.

       Being old isn't what it used to be, I thought, shaking my head. Not that I was old myself: I was just forty-four. Sadly, though, I'd used up my fifteen minutes of fame right at the beginning, without even being aware of it. I'd been the first baby born in Toronto on 1 January 2001 — the first child of the new millennium. A much bigger fuss had been made over the girl who had popped out just after midnight on 1 January 2000, a year that had no significance save for ending in three zeros. But that was okay: the last thing I wanted to be was a year older, because a year from now, I might very well be dead. The old joke ran through my mind again:

       "I'm afraid I've got some bad news," said the doctor. "You don't have long to live."

       The young man swallowed. "How much time have I got left?"

       The doctor shook his head sadly. "Ten."

       "Ten what? Ten years? Ten months? Ten —?"

       "Nine ... Eight ..."

       I shook my head to dispel the thought and looked around some more. The Fairmont Royal York was a grand hotel, dating from the first glory days of rail travel, and it was enjoying a revival now that magnetic-levitation trains were flying along the old tracks. The hotel was across the street from Union Station, just north of Toronto's lakeshore — and a good twenty-five kilometers east of where my parents' house still stood. Chandeliers hung from the ballroom ceiling, and original oil paintings adorned the flock-papered walls. Tuxedoed servers were milling about offering glasses of wine. I went to the open bar and ordered a tomato juice heavily spiked with Worcestershire; I wanted a clear head this evening.

       When I stepped away from the bar with my drink, I found myself standing next to an honest-to-goodness old lady: wrinkled face, white hair. Amid the surrounding denial and fakery, she was quite refreshing.

       The woman smiled at me, although it was a lopsided smile — she'd clearly suffered a stroke at some point. "Here alone?" she asked. Her pleasant voice was attenuated into a Southern drawl, and it was also tinged by the quaver often found in the elderly.

       I nodded.

       "Me, too," she said. She was wearing a dark jacket over a lighter blouse, and matching dark slacks. "My son refused to bring me." Most of the other old folks had companions with them: middle-aged children, or lawyers, or paid caregivers. I glanced down, noted that she was wearing a wedding band. She apparently followed my gaze. "I'm a widow," she said.


       "So," she said, "are you checking out the process for a loved one?"

       I felt my face quirk. "You might say that."

       She looked at me with an odd expression; I sensed that she'd seen through my comment, but, although curious, was too polite to press further. After a moment, she said, "My name's Karen." She held out her hand.

       "Jake," I said, taking it. The skin on her hand was loose and liver-spotted, and her knuckles were swollen. I squeezed very gently.

       "Where are you from, Jake?"

       "Here. Toronto. You?"


       I nodded. Many of tonight's potential customers were probably Americans. Immortex had found a much more congenial legal climate for its services in increasingly liberal Canada than in ever-more-conservative America. When I'd been a kid, college students used to come over to Ontario from Michigan and New York because the drinking age was lower here and the strippers could go further. Now, people from those two states crossed the border for legal pot, legal hookers, legal abortions, same-sex marriages, physician-assisted suicide, and other things the religious right frowned upon.

       "It's funny," said Karen, glancing at the aged crowd. "When I was ten, I once said to my grandmother, `Who the heck wants to be ninety?' And she looked me right in the eye and said, `Anyone who is eighty-nine.'" Karen shook her head. "How right she was."

       I smiled wanly.

       "Ladies and gentlemen," called a male voice, just then. "Would you all please take seats?"

       Doubtless no one here was hard of hearing; implants easily rectified that sign of aging, too. There were rows of folding chairs at the back of the ballroom, facing a podium. "Shall we?" said Karen. Something about her was charming — the Southern accent, maybe (Detroit certainly wasn't where she'd grown up) — and there were, of course, the connotations that went with being in a ballroom. I found myself offering my arm, and Karen took it. We walked over slowly — I let her set the pace — and found a pair of seats near the back at one side, an A. Y. Jackson landscape hanging under glass on the wall next to us.

       "Thank you," said the same man who'd spoken before. He was standing at the dark wooden podium. There was no light directly on him; just a little illumination spilling up from a reading lamp attached to the lectern. A gangling Asian of perhaps thirty-five, his black hair was combed straight back above a forehead that would have done Professor Moriarty proud. A surprisingly large, old-fashioned microphone covered his mouth. "My name is John Sugiyama," he said, "and I'm a vice-president at Immortex. Thank you all for coming tonight. I hope you've enjoyed the hospitality so far."

       He looked out at the crowd. Karen, I noticed, was one of those who murmured appreciatively, which seemed to be what Sugiyama wanted. "Good, good," he said. "In everything we do, we strive for absolute customer satisfaction. After all, as we like to say, `Once an Immortex client, always an Immortex client.'"

       He smiled broadly, and again waited for appreciative chuckles before going on. "Now, I'm sure you've all got questions, so let's get started. I know what we're selling costs a lot of money —"

       Somebody near me muttered, "Damn right," but if Sugiyama heard, he gave no sign. He continued: "But we won't ask you for a cent until you're satisfied that what we're offering is right for you." He let his gaze wander over the crowd, smiling reassuringly and making lots of eye contact. He looked directly at Karen but skipped over me; presumably he felt I couldn't possibly be a potential customer, and so wasn't worth wasting his charm on.

       "Most of you," Sugiyama said, "have had MRIs. Our patented and exclusive Mindscan process is nothing more daunting than that, although our resolution is much finer. It gives us a complete, perfect map of the structure of your brain: every neuron, every dendrite, every synaptic cleft, every interconnection. It also notes neurotransmitter levels at each synapse. There is no part of what makes you you that we fail to record."

       That much was certainly true. Back in 1990, a philanthropist named Hugh Loebner promised to award a solid gold medal — not just gold-plated like those cheap Olympic ones — plus $100,000 in cash to the first team to build a machine that passed the Turing Test, that old chestnut that said a computer should be declared truly intelligent if its responses to questions were indistinguishable from those of a human being. Loebner had expected it would be only a few years before he'd have to cough up — but that's not how things turned out. It wasn't until three years ago that the prize had been awarded.

       I'd watched the whole thing on TV: a panel of five inquisitors — a priest, a philosopher, a cognitive scientist, a woman who ran a small business, and a stand-up comic — were presented with two entities behind black curtains. The questioners were allowed to ask both entities anything at all: moral posers, general-knowledge trivia, even things about romance and child-rearing; in addition, the comic did his best to crack the entities up, and to quiz them about why certain jokes were or weren't funny. Not only that, but the two entities engaged in a dialogue between themselves, asking each other questions while the little jury looked on. At the end, the jurors voted, and they unanimously agreed they could not tell which curtain hid the real human being and which hid the machine.

       After the commercial break, the curtains were raised. On the left was a fiftyish, balding, bearded black man named Sampson Wainwright. And on the right was a very simple, boxy robot. The group collected their hundred grand — paltry from a monetary point of view now, but still hugely symbolic — and their gold medal. Their winning entity, they revealed, had been an exact scan of Sampson Wainwright's mind, and it had indeed, as the whole world could plainly see, thought thoughts indistinguishable in every way from those produced by the original. Three weeks later, the same group made an IPO for their little company called Immortex; overnight, they were billionaires.

       Sugiyama continued his sales pitch. "Of course," he said, "we can't put the digital copy back into the original biological brain — but we can transfer it into an artificial brain, which is precisely what our process does. Our artificial brains congeal out of quantum fog, forming a nanogel that precisely duplicates the structure of the biological original. The new version is you — your mind instantiated in an artificial brain made out of durable synthetics. It won't wear out. It won't suffer strokes or aneurysms. It won't develop dementia or senility. And ..." He paused, making sure he had everyone's attention. "It won't die. The new you will live potentially forever."

       Even though everyone knew that's what was for sale here, there were still sounds of astonishment — "forever" had such weight when spoken aloud. For my part, I didn't care about immortality — I rather suspected I'd get bored by the time I reached, well, Karen's age. But I'd been walking on eggshells for twenty-seven years, afraid that the blood vessels in my brain would rupture. Dying wouldn't be that bad, but the notion of ending up a vegetable like my father was terrifying to me. Fortunately, Immortex's artificial brains were electrically powered; they didn't require chemical nutrients, and weren't serviced by blood vessels. I rather doubted this was the cure Dr. Thanh had had in mind, but it would do in a pinch.

       "Of course," continued Sugiyama, "the artificial brain needs to be housed inside a body."

       I glanced at Karen, wondering if she'd read up on that aspect before coming here. Apparently, the scientists who had first made these artificial brains hadn't bothered to have them pre-installed in robotic bodies — which, for the personality represented by the recreated mind, turned out to be a hideous experience: deaf, blind, unable to communicate, unable to move, existing in a sensory void beyond even darkness and silence, lacking even the proprioceptive sense of how one's limbs are currently deployed and the touch of air or clothes against skin. Those transcribed neural nets reconfigured rapidly, according to the journal articles I'd managed to find, in patterns indicative of terror and insanity.

       "And so," said Sugiyama, "we'll provide you with an artificial body — one that's infinitely maintainable, infinitely repairable, and infinitely upgradeable." He held up a long-fingered hand. "I won't lie to you, now or ever: as yet, these replacements aren't perfect. But they are awfully good."

       Sugiyama smiled at the crowd again, and a small spotlight fell on him, slowly increasing in brightness. Beyond him, just like at a rock concert, floated a giant holographic version of his gaunt face.

       "You see," Sugiyama said, "I'm an upload myself, and this is an artificial body."

       Karen nodded. "I knew it," she declared. I was impressed by her acumen: I'd certainly been fooled. Of course, all that was visible of Sugiyama were his head and hands; the rest of him was covered by the podium or a fashionable business suit.

       "I was born in 1958," said Sugiyama. "I am eighty-seven years old. I transferred six months ago — one of the very first civilians ever to upload into an artificial body. At the break, I'll walk around and let you examine me closely. You'll find that I don't look exactly right — I freely admit that — and there are certain movements that I just can't do. But I'm not the least bit concerned, because, as I said, these bodies are infinitely upgradeable as technology advances. Indeed, I just got new wrists yesterday, and they are much more nimble than my previous set. I have no doubt that within a few decades, artificial bodies indistinguishable from biological ones will be available." He smiled again. "And, of course, I — and all of you who undergo our procedure — will be around a few decades from now."

       He was a master salesperson. Talking about centuries or millennia of additional life would have been too abstract — how does one even conceive of such a thing? But a few decades was something the potential customers, most with seven or more of them already under their belts, could appreciate. And every one of these people had been resigned to being in the last decade — if not the last year — of their lives. Until, that is, Immortex had announced this incredible process. I looked at Karen again; she was mesmerized.

       Sugiyama held up his hand once more. "Of course, there are many advantages to artificial bodies, even at the current state of technology. Just like our artificial brains, they are virtually indestructible. The braincase, for instance, is titanium, reinforced with carbon-nanotube fibers. If you decide you want to go skydiving, and your parachute fails to open, your new brain still won't get damaged on impact. If — God forbid! — someone shoots you with a gun, or stabs you with a knife — well, you'd almost certainly still be fine."

       New holographic images appeared floating behind him, replacing his face. "But our artificial bodies aren't just durable. They're strong — as strong as you'd like them to be." I'd expected to see video of fantastic stunts: I'd heard Immortex had developed super-powered limbs for the military, and that that technology was now available to civilian end-users, as well. But instead the display simply showed presumably artificial hands effortlessly opening a mason jar. I couldn't imagine what it must be like to be unable to do something so simple ... but it was clear that many of the others in the room were blown away by this demonstration.

       And Sugiyama had more to offer. "Naturally," he said, "you'll never need a walker, a cane, or an exoskeleton again. And stairs will no longer present a problem. You'll have perfect vision and hearing, and perfect reflexes; you'll be able to drive a car again, if you're not able to now."

       Even I missed the reflexes and coordination I'd had back when I'd been younger. Sugiyama continued: "You can kiss good-bye the pain of arthritis, and just about every other ailment associated with old age. And if you haven't yet contracted Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, you never will." I heard murmurs around me — including one from Karen. "And forget about cancer or broken hips. Say sayonara to arthritic joints and macular degeneration. With our process, you'll have a virtually unlimited lifespan, with perfect eyesight and hearing, vitality and strength, self-sufficiency and dignity." He beamed out at his audience, and I could see people nodding to themselves, or talking in positive tones with their neighbors. It did sound good, even for someone like me, whose day-to-day troubles were nothing more irritating than acid-reflux disease and the odd migraine.

       Sugiyama let the crowd chatter for a while before raising his hand again. "Of course," he said, as if it were a mere trifle, "there is one catch ..."


An excerpt from Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert J. Sawyer.
All rights reserved.

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