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THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Spoiler Warning! This document discloses many of the
details of the plot of the novel it discusses. It's strongly
recommended that you not look at this document until after
finishing the novel in question.
This isn't actually an outline it's a 2,400-word novel
synopsis, created after the book was finished. Robert J. Sawyer
wrote his Nebula Award-winning
novel The Terminal Experiment
without a contract, and without a formal outline. However, when
the novel was serialized in four parts in
Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine
(under Rob's original title of Hobson's Choice),
editor Stanley Schmidt requested a synopsis of the first
three-quarters of the
novel, to be run in successively longer versions at the beginning
of the second, third, and fourth installments of the serial. This
document started out as that synopsis, but Rob Sawyer continued
it to include the ending of the novel, of which, obviously, no
summary was required for Analog's purposes.
(Published in book form as
The Terminal Experiment)
December 2011: Detective ALEXANDRIA ("SANDRA") PHILO, 36, of the
Metropolitan Toronto Police is in hospital dying from radiation
damage inflicted by an illegal weapon called a beamer.
PETER HOBSON, Ph.D., 42, president of Hobson Monitoring Limited,
a biomedical engineering firm, bursts into her hospital room.
Sandra is shocked: she believes Peter, a prime suspect in some
recent murders, is the man who arranged for the attack that has
mortally wounded her. Peter protests his innocence, and tells
her of a new technique, pioneered by Peter's best friend,
artificial-intelligence specialist Dr. SARKAR MUHAMMED, to scan
every neural net in a human brain and produce an exact duplicate
of the subject's mind inside a computer. Using this technique,
Peter says that three computer duplicates of his own mind were
created and one of them, he claims, was responsible for
the murders. Even though Sandra is dying, Peter says there's
still a way for her to catch the murdering simulation.
Flashback to January 1995: Peter Hobson is now just 26, a
biomedical engineering student whose course work requires him to
log some real-world experience with medical monitoring equipment.
He's given the chance to operate the EKG during an operation to
harvest for transplant the heart of a teenaged boy who had been
in a severe motorcycle accident. But during the harvesting
procedure, the supposedly dead boy gasps on the operating table.
Peter learns that bodies to be used for organ harvesting are
never taken off life support. He realizes that in a very real
sense the teenaged boy didn't die until the moment the transplant
surgeon removed his heart from his chest.
Flash-forward to 2011: To this day, Peter is haunted by
nightmares about the supposedly dead boy waking up on the
operating table. Because of this, he's been working on a
super-sensitive EEG that he hopes will be able to precisely
determine the actual moment of final, irreversible death.
Meanwhile, Peter has also become intrigued by a new
nanotechnology process that claims to provide practical
immortality for human beings.
Peter is now married to a woman named CATHY, who, although she
has a degree in chemistry, works in a non-creative position for
Doowap Advertising. Out of the blue one day, Cathy tearfully
confesses to Peter that she has slept three times now with a
loutish office Lothario named HANS LARSEN. Peter is devastated,
crying for the first time in decades. Cathy goes for counseling,
and learns that her infidelity might be the result of the cold,
uncaring upbringing she'd had at the hands of her father, ROD
CHURCHILL, now a retired gym teacher.
Peter tests his superEEG on PEGGY FENNELL, a woman dying of old
age, and discovers to his astonishment a complex, cohesive
electrical field moving through her brain, and departing from it
at the moment of death. He shares this discovery with Sarkar,
who immediately accepts what Peter has been having difficulty
believing: that the electrical field was in fact Peggy's soul.
Peter has found the first scientific proof for some form of
continuing existence after death.
END OF PART ONE
Peter manages to get additional recordings of the soulwave
the name he adopts for the coherent electrical field
in the brains of over a hundred healthy people. He also
gets two additional recordings of the soulwave leaving dying
bodies. Sarkar pushes Peter to pursue the one question that
Peter had been avoiding: when does the soulwave first appear in
humans? Twelve years ago, Peter and Cathy had made what was, for
them, a very difficult decision: to have an abortion. Peter
does abdominal scans of thirty-two pregnant women, and finds that
the soulwave first appears nine or ten weeks after conception,
just about the time Cathy had terminated her pregnancy. Peter
realizes that once he goes public with his findings, he will be
damned by people on both sides of the abortion issue.
Peter holds a press conference to announce the discovery of the
soulwave, and does a media tour that includes appearances on
Donahue and Geraldo. Everyone wants to know the
answer to one question: what is life after death really like?
Peter says he has no idea there's nothing in his data to
give any indication.
Sarkar proposes an experiment to answer that question: he
suggests using his neural-scanning techniques to duplicate a
human brain inside a computer, then excise all the neural-net
connections related to biological functioning. What's left might
be, in some way, an approximation of whatever part of the human
psyche might survive separate from the body after death.
Peter is intrigued, but wants to go a step further, indulging his
curiosity about nanotech immortality by making a second computer
simulacrum that has all concerns about aging and death edited out
a simulation of a human mind that knows it is immortal.
A scan of Peter's own brain is used as the source for creating
three computer simulations: the "Spirit" sim, which attempts to
model life after death; the "Ambrotos" sim, which models
immortality; and "Control," an unmodified version to serve as a
baseline for the experiment. The three sims are activated inside
the computers at Sarkar's company. Peter and Sarkar have dialogs
with the two modified sims about the nature of life after death
and immortality, and Peter adopts the Control sim as a private
confidant with which to share his marital woes.
Meanwhile, Peter also becomes intrigued by Sarkar's
artificial-life experiments, which use the principles of
cumulative evolution to create very complex computer
simulations out of simple mathematical formulae
simulations so complex that they are arguably alive.
Left running unattended, the three sims together access the
online help system of Sarkar's computers and find their way out
into the global computer network. Two of the sims are content to
pursue the boundless information and virtual-reality simulations
available on the net but the third has a much more
concrete agenda. It uses electronic funds transfer to arrange
for a hitman to castrate and then kill Hans Larsen.
Detective Sandra Philo is assigned to the Larsen murder. She
realizes it is likely a professional hit ... and begins the
search for who might have ordered it.
END OF PART TWO
Sandra's investigation uncovers that Hans Larsen had been
sleeping with his co-worker Cathy Hobson making her, and
her husband, Peter Hobson, likely suspects in the murder
The same sim that arranged the death of Hans Larsen now turns its
attention to Cathy's father, Rod Churchill, whose coldness had
left Cathy vulnerable to Larsen's advances. After breaking into
a government medical-records database, the sim discovers that Rod
is taking the prescription drug phenelzine. The sim
tampers with the central ordering computer at a fast-food
delivery chain that Rod uses every Wednesday night. The next
time he orders his standard meal, his blood pressure shoots
sky-high while eating it, and he drops dead, apparently from an
Meanwhile, Spirit, the life-after-death sim, has discovered
Sarkar's artificial-life experiments, and has started modifying
them. To Sarkar's and Peter's astonishment, Spirit has turned
out to be much more intelligent than the flesh-and-blood Peter
Hobson: in eliminating all neural-net connections related to the
physical body, Sarkar has apparently also eliminated the
limitations that cause neural nets and the ideas they are
carrying to rapidly decay in the brain. This allows
Spirit to build up very complex thoughts.
The death of Rod Churchill is initially taken as accidental, but
in doing a database search Sandra Philo discovers the surprising
coincidence that Cathy Hobson has had two deaths associated with
her recently first Hans Larsen, and now her father.
Sandra visits the Churchill home and finds the computerized
printout of Rod's fast-food order and his prescription bottle of
phenelzine, which has a sticker on it warning of severe dietary
restrictions. Her curiosity piqued, she visits Rod's doctor and
discovers that phenelzine is an anti-depressant drug. Rod's
previous doctor had died recently, and his new doctor had
recognized at once what the old doctor had failed to diagnose,
namely that Rod had suffered from lifelong clinical depression.
Phenelzine, despite the dietary restrictions that went with its
use, was the only treatment for this that Rod had responded to.
But in looking over the fast-food order, the doctor says there's
no way Rod, who understood well his dietary restrictions, would
have ordered regular gravy as part of his meal, since most
gravies contain tyramine, which would react with the phenelzine
to raise Rod's blood pressure to crisis levels.
Sandra visits the fast-food ordering facility and finds that
Rod's order had been altered from its usual standard, with
regular gravy substituted for the synthetic tyramine-free gravy
he normally had. Rod's death now looks like a clever murder
and Cathy Hobson, with her degree in chemistry, looks like
a very likely suspect, especially after Sandra discovers that the
government medical database records for Rod Churchill had been
accessed using an account that had belonged to a doctor who had
gone to university with Cathy and Peter Hobson.
Sandra confronts Cathy, who denies any involvement in either
murder, but Cathy now wonders if her husband Peter is
responsible. She asks Peter if he arranged the murders; Peter is
shocked at the suggestion ... but then thinks of the sims.
Perhaps one of them is guilty; in cutting neural-network
connections, Sarkar might have inadvertently removed whatever it
is that causes human morality. Peter calls Sarkar at home, and
the two of them race to the offices of Mirror Image, Sarkar's
company, in hopes of pulling the plug before whichever sim is
responsible kills again.
END OF PART THREE
Sarkar and Peter discover that the sims have escaped out into the
worldwide computer network, and are beyond their reach. Still,
it might help if they knew which sim was responsible and
so they attempt to determine how morality might be altered by
already being dead or by living forever.
Cathy wonders aloud if one of the versions of Peter will want
Detective Philo dead, now that she is getting closer to the
truth. Meanwhile, Sarkar races to develop a computer virus that
could find and destroy the sims wherever they may be.
Detective Philo has Peter submit to a lie-detector test. Peter
is doing fine until he panics when Philo stumbles too close to
the truth. She now suspects the involvement of artificial
intelligences and has established a link between Peter and the
firm Mirror Image.
Sandra and a crack team from the Toronto Police's Computer Crimes
Division conduct a raid on Mirror Image. Peter, who happens to
be logged on to Mirror Image's computers over the phone lines,
manages just in time to hide all evidence of the brain scans
before the police can uncover it.
That night, while Peter is still at the office, Cathy returns
home from work. But the murdering sim has taken over the
household computers, and terrorizes Cathy until Peter rescues
Peter is shocked to discover that his father-in-law had been on
anti-depression medication. Everything he'd thought about him is
seen in a new light Rod Churchill couldn't help his
coldness. But the murdering sim must have known about Rod's
depression, since his medication for that condition was the key
to killing him. Peter realizes now that whichever sim is
responsible doesn't just have skewed morality it has no
morality at all.
Searching through his company's financial records, Peter
discovers the electronic funds transfer to the hitman who had
killed Larsen. But not only that he finds a second
payment to the same hitman, made just two days ago. Who could be
the intended victim?
Suddenly, he remembers what Cathy had said about Peter possibly
wanting Detective Philo out of the way. Peter rushes to her
home, arriving just in time to interrupt the hitman in the
process of killing her with a beamer weapon. Peter manges to get
ahold of Sandra's gun, and shoots the hitman. But the wound
closes up the hitman has undergone the nanotechnology
immortality process. Sandra is still alive, but has received a
lethal dose of radiation. The hitman flees as police sirens
approach, and Peter manages to escape.
Sarkar has finally perfected the computer virus to kill the sims.
In fact, he's created three separate versions one for each
of the three sims. Peter sends a message out onto the computer
network, summoning the three sims into a real-time conference.
He says they will release all three viruses unless the guilty sim
identifies itself, in which case they will only destroy the sim
that's actually guilty.
One sim does admit to the crimes but, incredibly, it's the
Control sim, the unmodified version a version that knows
it is a simulation; knows, therefore, that it has no soul; knows
it will never face ultimate judgment ...
Sarkar, wanting a clean end to everything, releases all three
viruses despite the promise to only go after the guilty sim. But
the Spirit sim, with its augmented intelligence, has already
found a way to defeat Sarkar's viruses. The murdering sim is
going to get away, it seems, unless ...
... the action comes full circle now, with Peter Hobson bursting
into the hospital room of the dying Detective Philo. Sarkar
scans her brain before she dies, and releases a simulation of her
into the worldwide computer net, an electronic detective to hunt
down the killer. The computerized Sandra chases the fugitive sim
through the computer network and finally destroys it.
The Spirit sim has been continuing with its artificial-life
experiments, finally developing a separate universe within the
computer networks a universe in which monogamy is the only
strategy that ensures survival of one's genes to the next
generation. Spirit has at last closed the wound caused by
In the real world, though, it's going to take longer. But
Peter's going to try. After all, he loves Cathy with all his
heart ... and soul.
In a brief epilogue years later, Peter Hobson, having chosen not
to pursue immortality, finally dies ... and we travel with his
departing soulwave, which, although it retains none of his
memories, is still the essence of all he was. An atom of God, it
returns to where it came from.
More Good Reading
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The Terminal Experiment wins the Nebula Award
Other novel outlines and synopses
Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
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