TRIGGERS by Robert J. Sawyer

It’s no secret that Triggers was inspired in part by the adaptation of Robert J. Sawyer’s 1999 novel, Flashforward, as a television show on ABC that recast the central conceit of the earlier book as the core to build a thriller around. With this in mind, I can’t help writing the screen treatment for Triggers in my head while reading it, crafting a hook that goes something like: White House Down meets one of those episodes from Star Trek where something strange happens on the holodeck.

It’s no secret that Triggers was inspired in part by the adaptation of Robert J. Sawyer’s 1999 novel, Flashforward, as a television show on ABC that recast the central conceit of the earlier book as the core to build a thriller around. With this in mind, I can’t help writing the screen treatment for Triggers in my head while reading it, crafting a hook that goes something like: White House Down meets one of those episodes from Star Trek where something strange happens on the holodeck.

If that sounds somewhat incongruous, it’s because it is. Though sci-fi and action-adventure are no strangers to each other, Triggers is far from a smooth blend between the genres. The initial setup is straight out of any number of summer blockbusters set in the action-movie version of Washington, D.C., featuring Iraq War veterans, terrorist threats, and Secret Service agents swarming around a President who’s just been shot, speaking urgently into their wrist microphones. Indeed, a reader who had skipped over the cover blurb might wonder after the first few chapters when the science fiction is going to come in. Though when the sci-fi does appear — a group of people find themselves able to read another person’s memories — the thriller plot falls off the radar almost entirely.

For despite the standoffs and the obligatory asides about the make and calibre of the guns that the characters are pointing at each other, the titular triggers have little to do with firearms. Rather, the triggers we’re concerned with are psychological: details that prompt us to remember something. This is, for the large part, to the good. There is fertile ground in the premise, and Triggers is at its best when it examines the consequences of the memory linkages from various angles.

The affected group numbers almost two dozen and its members come from diverse backgrounds. Among the linked pairs, some are colleagues while some are complete strangers with nothing in common — and one of them is the President of the United States. Their reactions to those links span a wide spectrum: for some, it’s a boon; for others, a nightmare. There are privacy implications, of course, greater — and more intimate — than any posed by Google Glass or the PRISM program. Triggers takes its time exploring different permutations of its pairings and their divergent outcomes. For a long stretch of the book, aside from the question of who’s reading the memories of the President, the national security stakes take a backseat to the personal ones.

Generally, I am all for this. The world doesn’t need another America-vs-the-Terrorists story. Though terrorists are the go-to enemy in the post-Cold War era, they aren’t a plug-in replacement for the Evil Empire, nor should they be used as a handy device to impose a sense of urgency to the proceedings. I also have trouble getting worked up about fictional U.S. Presidents — with few exceptions, they are bland figureheads with simplistic motivations made to suit the story being told. I found myself half wishing Triggers had not been set in near-future Earth, but rather something more Trek-like, a little more removed from our daily reality. It’s possible that I’ve been conditioned to empathize with starship captains more than politicians. But I’d also have liked to see, for example, messages about tolerance made more widely applicable by analogy, rather than focusing on a specific case of a black man and an elderly white woman.

However, Sawyer set out to tell a story that’s grounded on Earth and where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, so let’s judge it on its own merits. The terrorism plot does re-emerge to help propel the events of the final act. And if Triggers were a TV show, its finale would be as controversial as Lost or the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. For me, much of the potential of the premise came from its strict rules. A can remember B’s memories and B can remember C’s, on and on until the last person in the chain can recall A’s memories. The links aren’t reciprocal, and they are “first order” — one can’t access the memories of someone two spots down the line through the person who’s linked to both of them. They’re also explicitly reading memories, not thoughts, and though the recall is involuntary it requires a trigger to bring a memory to mind. The more these constraints fell away, the more I felt cheated. The ending may have tied everything up neatly, but the ribbons that made up the bow weren’t the ones we were following all along.


Triggers is nominated for a Prix Aurora Award. Voting for the Auroras is underway from now until September 13. See our previous reviews of this year’s nominees: Healer’s Sword by Lynda Williams and Blood and Water edited by Hayden Trenholm.

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