President Seth Jerrison, the Republican successor to Obama, is giving a speech from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The former History Professor from Columbia is presiding over a nation still at war: Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have been devastated by a new kind of bomb with the destructive power of a nuke. The perpetrators? Al-Sajada, an offshoot from the now-defunct al-Qaeda.

Jerrison is just getting into his stride – ‘… we shall not rest until our planet is free of the scourge of terrorism …’ – when that old nightmare makes its appearance: an assassin opens fire, mortally wounding the President.

As Jerrison is undergoing emergency surgery at the nearby Luther Terry Memorial Hospital, one of the new bombs is discovered on the very roof of the White House – clearly an inside job. A bomb disposal robot is soon rolling towards it on clanking treads.

Adjacent to the Operating Theatre where the President is struggling for life, Iraqi war veteran Kadeem Adams is about to undergo an experimental procedure for PTSD. His therapist, Professor Singh, has developed a special laser-based process which can directly activate the neural networks in Kadeem’s brain, editing those areas holding his traumatic memories. Kadeem is in the harness, the laser-rig is activated and the doctor prepares to stimulate a major flashback episode. And suddenly … the bomb detonates and an EMP sweeps across Washington. The power goes down in the Emergency Room and as the surgical team battle to restart the President’s heart, an impulse spike hits Professor Singh’s equipment. And everything changes.

It soon becomes apparent that everyone in a radius around Singh’s device can now access the complete memories of another nearby person. It’s a one way linkage, but someone now has the memories of the President himself. And that’s unfortunate, because Jerrison has signed off on Operation Counterpunch, a devastating military initiative intended to deal with the terrorist onslaught on America once and for all. But many would judge Counterpunch as the greatest atrocity in history.

The story unfolds as Secret Service agent Susan Dawson takes charge. Who has whose memories? And who has the President’s? It’s not made easier by the fact that the President now has Kadeem’s memories, including the Iraqi atrocities which caused his PTSD in the first place. It soon becomes apparent that the Secret Service has itself been infiltrated and Counterpunch is less than three days away.

Sawyer has a lot of fun with the concept that someone else might have access to everything you know. That other person now has access to all your passwords and bank details for example: it’s got to be a worry. If, like hospital CEO Dr Mark Griffin, you were involved in a major fraud, then you are now open to blackmail. If you have the memories of your romantic partner, you know everything both about them and about what they think of you.

It’s in the last few chapters that the novel begins to seriously go off the rails. The nature of Operation Counterpunch is revealed only at this point, although it will have been obvious to the reader from early on. However, it is incredible that such a self-defeating and morally-untenable plan could ever have seen the light of day. Really. Beyond the bounds of possibility.

Without revealing too much, the memory-sharing effect now begins to spread and go viral: it reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous novel ‘Childhood’s End’. But while Sartre observed that ‘Hell is other people’, Sawyer is an incurable optimist: if we all truly immersed ourselves in the memories and thoughts of others, conflict, fear and oppression would come to an end and a new utopia would dawn. As a new dawn ushers humanity to its next stage of consciousness, the result is a hasty conclusion that crudely closes off remaining plot threads. Don’t let any of this put you off though. Sawyer writes well, his characters are strong and interesting and if you manage to suspend your disbelief the pages will turn right through to the end.

‘Triggers’ by Robert J. Sawyer was published in April 2012.