Robert J. Sawyer’s near future, artificial intelligence, post-cyberbunk trilogy continues with Watch. With her ability to see enabled and a friend in the form of the sentient Internet, protagonist Caitlin Decter is literally seeing the world with a new set of eyes. The emergenceof her new friend, Webmind, does not go unnoticed by the world, at least governmental intelligence groups who monitor the world for the potential growth of Artificial Intelligence. This group lends its name to the title of the book, WATCH.
Side plots from the first book like the battle for which zoo will house a chimp-bonobo hybrid, and China’s disappearance from the World Wide Web continue, but are pushed further to the background as Sawyer focuses more on Caitlin and the growth of Webmind. Sawyer’s decision here is the right one since watching Webmind evolve with the help of Caitlin is intriguing.
One narrative trick Sawyer plays in Watch is effective. The majority is told in a third person omniscient POV, while the remainder is from Webmind’s first person narrative. This provides more insight into the growing life form and Sawyer captured the alien-ness of Webmind fairly well. Having only humans after which to model himself, it’s only natural for the artificial intelligence to be somewhat humanistic.
There is something almost naïve about Webmind’s development as a sentient and intelligent being. To be guided by a young relatively well-adjusted girl whose parents are scientists is a bit too optimistic a thing for which to hope and impinges a bit on the story’s credibility – things are a bit too convenient.
This convenience is tempered by the aforementioned WATCH, whose basic mission statement is the responsibility of shutting down any artificial intelligence that evolves and develops. While this group makes attempts at ‘killing’ Webmind, they aren’t fast enough and decide at a point where Webmind can outpace their fail-safes and still survive despite their attempts.
Of course Caitlin doesn’t want to see her friend killed and enlists the man who helped give her vision, her mother, and the aid of her father, who happens to be a colleague of Stephen Hawking, in keeping Webmind alive. Although the group WATCH isn’t altruistic from Caitlin and Webmind’s perspective, Sawyer thankfully falls short of painting them as a eeevil governmental entity.
At times, the dialogue and urgency behind the events really moved the pace along although at times the pacing was a bit uneven. On the other hand, Caitlin’s budding romance with Matthew slowed things down a bit compared to the frenetic pace at which Webmind evaded WATCH’s attempts at shutting down the budding AI. The ‘romance’ scenes did help to flesh out Caitlin’s character and showed she was more than a girl who just gained the ability to see.
One criticism I brought up in my review of the first volume, Wake, carries over here – the sense that though a 1/3 of the entire trilogy, the book had the feel more of a third of a novel rather than a second book in the trilogy. Once the final novel, Wonder publishes, perhaps I’ll have a better overall picture.
A lot of the above may put forth the idea that I didn’t enjoy the book. Quite the opposite – I liked it quite a bit and found the story and novel pleasantly digestible. Over the course of the two novels thus far, Sawyer has presented an interesting perspective of artificial intelligence and, perhaps, a 21st Century revisionist view of a cyberpunk story. The novel has the fresh feel of something that could happen in the very near future and, despite some of the potential hazards of an emergent AI, an optimistic view of the next great technological leap our world may take.
So, with the caveat that one pick up Wake, I would recommend this second novel in Sawyer’s trilogy.
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford