Robert J. Sawyer has written well over a dozen science fiction novels, many of which have been nominated and/or won major awards including the Aurora, Hugo, and Nebula awards. He is arguably the most prominent Canadian Science Fiction writer and his Aurora Award-wining novel Flashforward is the basis for a television series debuting in Fall 2009. Suffice to say, Sawyer is a brand name in the genre and rightfully so. In Wake, the opening novel of his WWW trilogy, he tackles one of the most prominent themes in Science Fiction – Artificial Intelligence. In the case of the WWW trilogy, the artificial intelligence is the World Wide Web which becomes sentient.
To take a step back and move to the granular level, Wake centers on Caitlin Decter a young girl blind from birth. Despite this handicap and moving from Texas to Canada, she has adjusted pretty well and is able to browse the internet through a text-to-voice interface that reads the Web pages to her. One day, she receives a promising message about a new technology developed in Japan that might allow her to finally see. What she gets is not exactly the vision for which she hoped, for this procedure allows here to see the connections of the World Wide Web, which she comes to call her Websight. She begins to see something else though, something that respond, something that seemingly has free will and the ability to act on its own.
Machine intelligence and sentient computer programs are not entirely new to the genre but often, these stories take place far enough into the future where the living computers/machines are taken as a given. Here, Sawyer endeavors to explain how the World Wide Web wakens and though readable style, ability to describe the evolution of technology and how it gained life, Sawyer tells an engaging story with hints of something dark lying in wait.
While the main plot thread follows Caitlin through her introduction as a character, to her dealing with the surgery, and how she eventually gains vision (and this isn’t really a spoiler nor should it be considered a bad element of predictability that she does gain vision) to the wakening of the World Wide Web, which dubs itself Webmind, Sawyer seems to be playing on a larger canvas.
Two other storylines begin to unfold – a young chimpanzee suddenly begins to paint pictures, showing a higher level of intelligence than his sign-language using peers. The other involves a breakout of a superflu in a small area of China, which is covered up by the Chinese government closing off their Internet from the rest of the world – effectively imposing a National blackout to hide how they deal with the superflu. I found these plot threads to be interesting, though not as fully engaging as Caitlin’s. On the surface they don’t seem to be connected, yet, but the thematic similarities are quite easy to pinpoint – Webmind and the chimp’s growing intelligence and Webmind and the disconnect between China and the rest of the world. What is more interesting are the possibilities of how these two side plots will converge to Caitlin and Webmind.
Other characters – Caitlin’s mother, her seemingly unemotional father, Dr. Kuroda (the Japanese Doctor who came up with the procedure), Caitlin’s best friend Bashira, the scientists working with Hobo the chimp, the blogger who is determined to find out why China cut itself off from the rest of the world – are all drawn adequately and come across as people you might know, or know of.
A minor criticism is that the book breezed by too quickly. While I realize it is the first book of a trilogy, the book had the feel more of a third of a novel rather than a first book in the trilogy. The book has 368 pages, but the text was fairly well spaced out on each page. On the other hand (and this might almost come across as hypocritical), Sawyer did a terrific job of packing a lot of story, information, and character into this novel. Ultimately, the book was very enjoyable, Caitlin was a plausible and likeable character – in other words I highly recommend it!
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford