Robert J. Sawyer pulls the trigger on his latest novel

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First aired on Fresh Air (7/4/12)

What would happen if someone else had access to your memory? And you happened to be the President of the United States -- and your memory contained classified information about an upcoming and devastating counterattack? That's the premise of Robert J. Sawyer's latest novel, Triggers.

Sawyer was compelled to explore this idea after a trip to Washington D.C., where he noticed how vastly different the city was from his hometown of Ottawa.

Americans commemorate history with monuments. Canadians don't. "This notion that things get permanently in our memory, etched in stone...made me think about the things that collectively impact our psyche," Sawyer explained to Fresh Air host Mary Ito in a recent interview. And what he realized was that most of these events are traumatic. "I got very, very interested in that."

Triggers is a meditation on memory, as well as dealing with contemporary issues such as technology, science and race. Like Sawyer's previous 20 novels, Triggers is designed to keep the pages turning, but also to keep you thinking long after the reading is done. "I always want to do thoughtful entertainment, things that will leave people with something to talk about and think about long after they read the book."

Unlike Sawyer's previous work, however, Triggers is a out-and-out thriller, with multiple characters, fast-paced chapters and a core mystery that needs solving -- fast. Sawyer felt compelled to enter that genre after the success of the television adaptation of his novel Flash Forward. While the book was not a thriller, the television show was (with Sawyer's blessing). The show introduced thousands of new readers to Sawyer's work and he wanted to give them what they wanted -- an "action-adventure, conspiracy, slam-bang kidnapping, shoot 'em up story" -- while staying true to his core audience.

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Both audiences should respond to the important, contemporary questions posed in Triggers. With how we communicate, how we heal, and even how we conduct war rapidly changing, how do we collectively identify what is moral and ethical, what is right and what is wrong? "Everything is shifting in terms of morality," Sawyer says. "We have new ways of interacting, new ways of reproducing, new ways of constituting a family. We have to come up with new rules of the game, and this is a thought exercise on how you do that."

Sawyer is sure about one thing: change is constant, and it's often for the better. In the 21 years since he published his first novel, he believes he's become a better writer and that the world is a better place.

Or maybe, Sawyer acknowledges, it's just that he's become more accepting. "As you live more of life, as you live through the vicissitudes of middle age and so forth, you learn to empathize with other people better."

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