Factoring Humanityby Robert J. Sawyer
In the near future, a signal is detected coming from the Alpha Centauri system. Mysterious, unintelligible data streams in for ten years. Heather Davis, a professor in the University of Toronto psychology department, has devoted her career to deciphering the message. Her estranged husband, Kyle, is working on the development of artificial intelligence systems and
In the near future, a signal is detected coming from the Alpha Centauri system. Mysterious, unintelligible data streams in for ten years. Heather Davis, a professor in the University of Toronto psychology department, has devoted her career to deciphering the message. Her estranged husband, Kyle, is working on the development of artificial intelligence systems and new computer technology utilizing quantum effects to produce a near-infinite number of calculations simultaneously.
When Heather achieves a breakthrough, the message reveals a startling new technology that rips the barriers of space and time, holding the promise of a new stage of human evolution. In concert with Kyle's discoveries of the nature of consciousness, the key to limitless exploration---or the end of the human race---appears close at hand.
Sawyer has created a gripping thriller, a pulse-pounding tour of the farthest reaches of technology.
Factoring Humanity is a 1999 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel.
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Read an Excerpt
Heather Davis took a sip of her coffee and looked at the brass clock on the mantelpiece. Her nineteen-year-old daughter Rebecca had said she'd be here by 8:00 P.M., and it was already eight-twenty.
Surely Becky knew how awkward this was. She had said she'd wanted a meeting with her parentsboth of them, simultaneously. That Heather Davis and Kyle Graves had been separated for almost a year now didn't enter into the equation. They could have met at a restaurant, but no, Heather had volunteered the housethe one in which she and Kyle had raised Becky and her older sister Mary, the one Kyle had moved out of last August. Now, though, with the silence between her and Kyle having stretched on for yet another minute, she was regretting that spontaneous offer.
Although Heather hadn't seen Becky for almost four months, she had a hunch about what Becky wanted to say. When they spoke over the phone, Becky often talked about her boyfriend Zack. No doubt she was about to announce an engagement.
Of course, Heather wished her daughter would wait a few more years. But then again, it wasn't as if she was going to university. Becky worked in a clothing store on Spadina. Both Heather and Kyle taught at the University of Torontoshe in psychology, he in computer science. It pained them that Becky wasn't pursuing higher education. In fact, under the Faculty Association agreement, their children were entitled to free tuition at U of T. At least Mary had taken advantage of that for one year before…
No, this was a time of celebration. Becky was getting married! That was what mattered today.
She wondered how Zack had proposedor whether it had been Becky who had popped the question. Heather remembered vividly what Kyle had said to her when he'd proposed, twenty-one years ago, back in 1996. He'd taken her hand, held it tightly, and said, "I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life getting to know you."
Heather was sitting in an overstuffed easy chair; Kyle was sitting on the matching couch. He'd brought his datapad with him and was reading something on it. Knowing Kyle, it was probably a spy novel; the one good thing for him about the rise of Iran to superpower status had been the revitalization of the espionage thriller.
On the beige wall behind Kyle was a framed photoprint that belonged to Heather. It was made up of an apparently random pattern of tiny black-and-white squaresa representation of one of the alien radio messages.
Becky had moved out nine months ago, shortly after she'd finished high school. Heather had hoped Becky might stay at home a whilethe only other person in the big, empty suburban house now that Mary and Kyle were gone.
At first, Becky came by the house frequentlyand according to Kyle, she had seen her father often enough, too. But soon the gaps between visits grew longer and longerand then she stopped coming altogether.
Kyle apparently had become aware that Heather was looking at him. He lifted his eyes from the datapad and managed a wan smile. "Don't worry, hon. I'm sure she'll be here."
Hon. They hadn't lived together as husband and wife for eleven months, but the automatic endearments of two decades die hard.
Finally, at a little past eight-thirty, the doorbell rang. Heather and Kyle exchanged glances. Becky's thumbprint still operated the lock, of courseas, for that matter, did Kyle's. No one else could possibly be dropping by this late; it had to be Becky. Heather sighed. That Becky didn't simply let herself in underscored Heather's fears: her daughter no longer considered this house to be her home.
Heather got up and crossed the living room. She was wearing a dress-hardly her normal at-home attire, but she'd wanted to show Becky that her coming by was a special occasion. And as Heather passed the mirror in the front hall and caught sight of the blue floral print of the dress, she realized that she, too, was acting as Becky was, treating her daughter's arrival as a visit from someone for whom airs had to be put on.
Heather completed the journey to the door, touched her hands to her dark hair to make sure it was still properly positioned, then turned the knob.
Becky stood on the step. She had a narrow face, high cheekbones, brown eyes, and brunette hair that brushed her shoulders. Beside her was her boyfriend Zack, all gangly limbs and scraggly blond hair.
"Hello, darling," said Heather to her daughter, and then, smiling at the young man, whom she hardly knew: "Hello, Zack."
Becky stepped inside. Heather thought perhaps her daughter would stop long enough to kiss her, but she didn't. Zack followed Becky into the hall, and the three of them made their way up into the living room, where Kyle was still sitting on the couch.
"Hi, Pumpkin," said Kyle, looking up. "Hi, Zack."
His daughter didn't even glance at him. Her hand found Zack's, and they intertwined fingers.
Heather sat down in the easy chair and motioned for Becky and Zack to sit as well. There wasn't enough room on the couch next to Kyle for both of them. Becky found another chair, and Zack stood behind her, a hand on her left shoulder.
"It's so good to see you, dear," said Heather. She opened her mouth again, realized that what was about to come out was a comment on how long it had been, and closed it before the words got free.
Becky turned to look at Zack. Her lower lip was trembling.
"What's wrong, dear?" asked Heather, shocked. If not an engagement announcement, then what? Could Becky be ill? In trouble with the police? She saw Kyle lean slightly forward; he, too, was detecting his daughter's anxiety.
"Go ahead," said Zack to Becky; he whispered it, but the room was quiet enough that Heather could make it out.
Becky was silent for a few moments longer. She closed her eyes, then re-opened them. "Why?" she said, her voice quavering.
"Why what, dear?" said Heather.
"Not you," said Becky. Her gaze fell for an instant on her father, then it dropped to the floor. "Him."
"Why what?" asked Kyle, sounding as confused as Heather felt.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed; it did that every quarter-hour.
"Why," said Becky, raising her eyes again to look at her father, "did you…"
"Say it," whispered Zack, forcefully.
Becky swallowed, then blurted it all out. "Why did you abuse me?"
Kyle slumped against the couch. The datapad, which had been resting on the couch's arm, fell to the hardwood floor with a clattering sound. Kyle's mouth hung open. He looked at his wife.
Heather's heart was racing. She felt nauseous.
Kyle closed his mouth, then opened it again. "Pumpkin, I never"
"Don't deny it," said Becky. Her voice was quaking with fury; now that the accusation was out, a dam had apparently burst. "Don't you dare deny it."
"And don't call me that. My name is Rebecca."
Kyle spread his arms. "I'm sorry, Rebecca. I didn't know it bothered you, my calling you that."
"Damn you," she said. "How could you do that to me?"
"Don't lie! For God's sake, at least have the guts to admit it."
"But I neverRebecca, you're my daughter. I'd never hurt you."
"You did hurt me. You ruined me. Me, and Mary."
Heather rose to her feet. "Becky"
"And you!" shouted Becky. "You knew what he was doing to us and you didn't do anything to stop him."
"Don't yell at your mother," said Kyle, his voice sharp. "Becky, I never touched you or Maryyou know that."
Zack spoke in a normal volume for the first time. "I knew he'd deny it."
Kyle snapped at the young man. "Damn youyou keep out of this."
"Don't raise your voice at him," said Becky to Kyle.
Kyle fought to be calm. "This is a family matter," he said. "We don't need him here."
Heather looked at her husband, then at her daughter. "Becky," Heather said, fighting to keep her own voice under control, "I swear to you"
"Don't you deny it, too," Becky said.
Heather took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "Tell me," she said. "Tell me what you think happened."
There was silence for a long time as Becky apparently composed her thoughts. "You know what happened," she said at last, the accusatory tone still in her voice. "He'd slip out of your room after midnight and come to mine or Mary's."
"Becky," said Kyle, "I never"
Becky looked at her mother, but then closed her eyes. "He'd come into my room, have me remove my top, f-fondle my breasts, and then" She choked off, opened her eyes and looked again at Heather. "You must have known," she said. "You must have seen him leaving, seen him come back." A pause as she took a shuddering breath. "You must have smelled the sweat on himsmelled me on him."
Heather was shaking her head. "Becky, please."
"None of that ever happened," said Kyle.
"There's no point staying if he's going to deny it," said Zack.
Becky nodded and reached into her purse. She pulled out a tissue and wiped her eyes, then got to her feet and began walking away. Zack followed her, and so did Heather. Kyle rose as well, but in a matter of moments, Becky and Zack were down the stairs and at the front door.
"PumpBecky, please," said Kyle, catching up with them. "I'd never hurt you."
Becky turned around. Her eyes were red, her face flushed. "I hate you," she said, and then she and Zack scurried out the door into the night.
Kyle looked at Heather. "Heather, I swear I never touched her."
Heather didn't know what to say. She headed back up to the living room, holding the banister for balance. Kyle followed. Heather took a chair, but Kyle went to the liquor cabinet and poured himself some Scotch. He drained it in a gulp and stood leaning against the wall.
"It's that boyfriend of hers," said Kyle. "He put her up to this. They'll be filing a lawsuit, betcha anythingcan't wait for the inheritance."
"Kyle, please," said Heather. "It's your daughter you're talking about."
"And it's her father she's talking about. I'd never do anything like that. Heather, you know that."
Heather stared at him.
"Heather," said Kyle, a note of pleading in his voice now, "you must know it's not true."
Something had kept Rebecca away for almost a year. And something before that had
She hated to think about it, and yet it came to mind every day.
Something had driven Mary to suicide.
"I'm sorry." She swallowed, then after a moment, nodded. "I'm sorry. I know you couldn't do anything like that." But her voice sounded flat, even to her.
"Of course not."
"It's just that…"
"What?" snapped Kyle.
"Well, you did have a habit of getting up, of leaving our room in the middle of the night."
"I can't believe you're saying that," said Kyle. "I can't fucking believe it."
"It's true. Two, three nights a week sometimes."
"I have trouble sleepingyou know that. I get up and go watch some TV, or maybe do some work on my computer. Christ, I still do that, and I live alone now. I did it last night."
Heather said nothing.
"I couldn't sleep. If I'm still awake an hour after I go to bed, I get upyou know that. No bloody point just lying there. Last night I got up and watchedChrist, what was it? I watched The Six Million Dollar Man on Channel 3. It was the one with William Shatner as the guy who could communicate with dolphins. You call the TV stationthey'll tell you that's the one that was on. And then I sent some e-mail to Jake Montgomery. We can go to my apartment right nowright nowand look at my outbox; you'll see the time stamp on it. Then I came back to bed around one twenty-five, one-thirty, something like that."
"Nobody accused you of doing anything wrong last night."
"But that's the kind of thing I do every night I get up. Sometimes I watch The Six Million Dollar Man, sometimes The John Pellatt Show. And I look at The Weather Channel, see what it's going to be like tomorrow. They said it was going to rain today, but it didn't."
Oh, yes, it did, thought Heather. It came down in fucking buckets.
Copyright © 1998 by Robert J. Sawyer
Meet the Author
Robert J. Sawyer is the Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids, the Nebula Award-winning author of The Terminal Experiment, and the Aurora Award-winning author of FlashForward, basis for the ABC TV series. He is also the author of Calculating God, Mindscan, the WWW seriesWake, Watch and Wonderand many other books. He was born in Ottawa and lives in Toronto.
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This was my second Sawyer book, and to my surprise, the second "decode an alien message" story from him (the other being the novel "Rollback"). Both books use that puzzle to carry along other human problems, giving Sawyer ample time to develop characters that we like. "Factoring Humanity" was a very quick read, and I liked the depth his characters here had. The science was extremely mystical, however, and that cop-out has never made me happy when I've found it. If the real world winds up with all humanity wired into each other, I'll be sorely disappointed. I happen to actually *like* individuality. Anyway. The book was actually still a fun read, the characters were enjoyable, and the situation presented was interesting. Four stars.
Sci fi writer Robert J. Sawyer has won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, and is nominated again this year. Factoring Humanity is the fourth book I've reviewed by this author, and each one is exceptional. Sawyer excels at putting a human face on technology and breathing soul into scientific data. This sci fi thriller is a prime example. Heather Davis is a Psychology professor at the University of Toronto. Her husband, Kyle Graves, experiments with Artificial Intelligence and quantum mechanics at the same university. Their marriage has been strained by tragedy, and shattered with their youngest daughter's allegations of sexual abuse. Both are devastated by loss and throw themselves into their work. Heather's project is particularly intriguing. Every 31 hours and 51 minutes like clockwork, a new data message is received from space. Its origin, a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A. Heather and her colleagues around the world work at translating the messages without success, until one day she stumbles onto the key. Quantum physcs, mathematical equations, and parallel universes play a part in the mystery. First Heather and then Kyle is drawn into the conundrum with world changing results. Will the messages from space unlock the mysteries of the human mind? And will they be a path to healing or total annihilation of the human race? As in every novel by this author, the underlying technology is first rate and the characters well defined. Long time fans of Sawyer will love Factoring Humanity, and new readers of his work will understand why he wins Hugo and Nebula Awards.