So here we go. I'll be honest, this is the first science fiction novel I've ever reviewed (and actually the first I've read in a long, long time, unless you count the odd Philip K. Dick). I am no stranger to sci-fi, I gobble up the movies and the television shows.
The reason I've avoided science fiction novels for so long is that so much of it is in the 'space opera' tradition, which I find indulgent and irritating. For some reason, while I have no problem with the world building that goes on in fantasy novels, world-building in sci-fi is off-putting. Even in television/film, I tend to prefer sci-fi where the fictional world is different from ours in one key respect, rather than in every respect possible.
So Robert J. Sawyer seemed like a good place to resume. You may remember him as the creator of the novel that inspired the series Flashforward, which had a great concept but hilariously dire execution (though it was worth watching for Joseph Fiennes' "acting" alone). But I liked the setup: a normal world, hit by an inexplicable event, followed by human stories about how we deal with knowledge we were never meant to have.
Factoring Humanity is a much more small-scale story: we have two married (but separated) scientists at the University of Toronto working to decipher two of the most complex scientific problems of the day: Kyle works on building a quantum computer, and Heather works on deciphering cryptic alien messages from Alpha Centauri. The inciting incident, however, is much more down to earth: their estranged daughter, Becky, returns to accuse of Kyle of sexually molesting her when she was a teenager.
Naturally Kyle denies it, and Heather is inclined to believe him but is torn between the two people she loves. So what do they do? They appeal to science. Kyle's only friend is the AI test robot he calls Cheetah. In some of my favorite scenes in the novel, they have playful and witty conversations about the meaning of humanity. Heather, on the other hand, finally has a breakthrough in deciphering the alien code, which leads her to incredible discoveries that I will not spoil here.
Heather's story is certainly more compelling; we spend more time with her, get to know her desires and her quirks. And of course she's the one to build the alien machine. We get to know Kyle mainly in the reflexive sense: his character is defined mainly by how he reacts to his daughter's accusation and by how he interprets humanity for Cheetah.
There were many scenes in the novel that I enjoyed that I suspect might grind the reading to a halt for more experienced readers of science fiction. Every theory posited is explained at length, from the Many Worlds Theorem to Jungian psychology to the importance of prime factors in code-breaking. Each of these explanations were educational and interesting until they made the leaps necessary to go from, for example, hypercube tesseracts to MANIFESTATION OF ALIEN OVERMIND. I do appreciate the attempt to not just wave a magical wand and go 'wibbley wobbley timey wimey,' but I do wonder if undermines suspension of belief to explain everything so clearly up to a point and THEN wave the magic wand.
Now I couldn't put the book down; I love learning about scientific theory, and I was genuinely curious about what would happen to these characters. However, an issue I had throughout the first half was what I mentioned previously about its small scale, about the magnifying glass on one family. In a sense, this issue is resolved satisfactorily because the book maintains its humanist focus until the end, and does not try to be bigger than it is. This really is a story about one family (and first contact with aliens). But at the same time, I wish Sawyer would go further.
It's an excellent introduction to the concept, but I want to see that concept drawn on a more macro scale. The book seems to end just as it was getting started: a barely alluded to threat made by a powerful banking consortium materializes only in the final ten pages of the novel and then disappears just as uneventfully. Factoring Humanity does succeed as a stand-alone novel, but I can't help but think how much better it would function as the first novel in a trilogy or series.