The premise of Robert J. Sawyer’s 21st novel seems like a recipe for a great thriller. In a near-future Washington, D.C., the U.S. president is shot by a sniper. He survives, but while he’s in hospital undergoing surgery, a bomb destroys the White House, sending out a pulse that interferes with a memory experiment going on one floor above the operating room. Everyone in close proximity suddenly has access to someone else’s memories – including those of the president. Secret Service agents rush to find the would-be assassin and prevent the leak of state secrets, but the book’s focus quickly shifts from the terrorism plot to the personal lives of the people involved in the experiment.
Though fascinating on a conceptual level, Triggers often feels flat. Sawyer doesn’t narrate so much as explain. This approach works when memory researcher Dr. Ranjip Singh and Secret Service agent Susan Dawson try to work out exactly what transpired in the wake of the bomb blast, but it’s irritating and intrusive when dealing with characters’ emotions. The reader is never allowed to decide what to think or feel about a character – Sawyer keeps them all too rigidly defined. This one is timid but possesses hidden strength; that one is dedicated to her job; another has a dark secret. Those are good starting points, but Sawyer is so busy explicating motivations and psychology that his characters never get the chance to surprise the reader.
Moreover, Sawyer’s optimistic outlook frequently tips over into tone-deaf naïveté. Less than a day after leaving her abusive husband, a nurse named Janis begins what’s supposed to be a healthy relationship with a man who can effectively read her mind. And any provocative inquiries into the nature and value of privacy are overwhelmed by the joy and understanding the characters derive from their new sense of openness.
A good book undoubtedly could be written using the elements Sawyer has assembled. Triggers isn’t it.