Triggers is a near-future science fiction novel that deals with a United States on the precipice of disaster; in it, the War on Terror has not only continued but become a more constant feature of daily life, with attacks on US soil becoming more commonplace. In the middle of one of those attacks, an event happens, one that connects a seemingly-disparate group of people by giving them access to each other’s most hidden thoughts and desires.
At first glance, this seems like a bit of a departure for author Robert J Sawyer – while his previous work has touched upon general political themes, he hasn’t often grounded his work in specific political events, nor has he focused on telling stories with a strong action element. Also, on the surface the science fictional aspects of the story – with memories becoming shared between a variety of characters – seemed “softer” than the hard sci-fi that Sawyer usually writes.
Reading Triggers, however, one finds that those first impressions are completely wrong. This book is classic Sawyer, with many elements that are reminiscent of his earlier works, while still providing a refreshing amount of novelty in its grounded, character-driven exploration of memory, privacy, and interpersonal interaction. Sawyer is an author with a corpus of work that takes an optimistic attitude toward the role of science in society, and he continues that here – while the terrorist group that initiates the events of the book are using cutting-edge technology, they’re not the focus of the book in any way. Instead, the focus is placed on Dr. Singh’s memory technology, and the potential that it has to benefit people suffering from issues such as PTSD.
The characters are all connected through the hospital that they’re at when the attack takes place, but they represent a diverse group within that environment both in terms of personality and demographic. Many authors would have been tempted to focus solely on the flashy characters, such as President Jerrison and the doctors that were working with him, but Sawyer makes sure that the more working-class characters are represented just as fully. Seeing these characters navigate both their public and formerly-private lives is fascinating, and provides a great deal of grounded, realistic tension within the fantastic events occurring around them.
One of the surprising elements of the text is that it seemed in some ways to invoke Buddhist conceptions of the self. It’s not explicitly stated as such, and Sawyer doesn’t identify as Buddhist, but the events of the last act definitely lend themselves toward a Buddhist understanding of the self. The majority of modern science fiction tends to lean towards skeptical agnosticism, so it makes the ending stand out as different from the majority of the work currently being published.
For readers that have never explored Sawyer’s work, Triggers serves as a great introduction to his style of writing and the issues that he deals with in many of his works. For more entrenched fans of his work, it’s an engaging look at consciousness and individuality, and how they relate to our responsibilities to the communities that we live in.