Tuesday, November 9, 2010

WWW: Wake - Robert J. Sawyer

After finishing Connie Willis' rather big book All Clear I decided to dive into Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. It will perhaps not come as a surprise to you but I won't be able to finish it in time for a midweek review. To keep you entertained until I finish it an older piece. I wrote this review in April 2009. I rewrote part of the introduction because the original doesn't make sense for this blog. Other than just some polishing. I hope to read the second part in the WWW trilogy sometime in December.

WWW: Wake is the first part in Sawyer’s new WWW trilogy. It was released in April 2009, followed by WWW: Watch two in 2010. The final part, WWW: Wonder, is expected in 2011. This book is my first exposure to Sawyer’s work. One of his novels, Hominids, has been gathering dust on my to read pile for quite a while now. It’s one of those books I intend to read whenever I can fit them into my review schedule. So far I haven’t found an opening but after reading this book I think I may have to make an opening for it soon, WWW: Wake was a very entertaining read.

Fifteen year old Caitlin has been blind from birth. She has a very rare medical condition that affects the link between her eyes and the part of her brain interpreting visual signals. So far no treatment has helped but now a Japanese doctor contacts her with a proposal for an experimental treatment. It involves an implant that will restore the connection between her brain and eyes digitally and hopefully allow her to see. The procedure itself seems to be a failure but soon Caitlin notices some interesting side effects. She can visualize the world wide web.

In the mean time some seemingly unrelated events take place elsewhere on the planet. In China an outbreak of the bird flu is handled by the Chinese government by shutting the country off from the outside word completely and taking some very rigorous containment measures. In a research facility in southern California a Bonobo/Chimpanzee hybrid Hobo, taught to communicate with it’s caretakers by using American Sign Language, shows it is capable of producing representational art. Soon a fierce battle over it’s custody erupts. All of these events are witnessed at some level, by a rising intelligence on the world wide web. It’s struggle to gain awareness is hard, without a physical environment it is a very abstract way of evolving. It is learning fast however and it seems to have found a teacher in Caitlin.

Sawyer has written a pretty fast paced novel with WWW: Wake. Deceptively so in fact. Although it does not slow the story down, he has packed the text with references to developments in information technology, mathematics, physics, linguistics and a number of other fields. He does so without the reader having to understand every detail of the science he describes, the general idea is usually enough, but all this scientific and technical detail does create a second layer into this novel. Parts of the novel read like Oliver Sacks writing science fiction. There is a wealth of references to all manner of technological and scientific ideas and a number of books (including some science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey for one). I’m pretty sure that after this first reading in I missed quite a few too.

By using all of these different ideas Sawyer creates an interesting view on the main theme of the novel, the development of self-awareness. The debate on how intelligent Chimpanzees are for instance, and to which extend they are capable of using language is one that has been going on for quite a while. The researchers in this book are constantly battling disbelief and prejudice, but are also faced by the question of whether what they are seeing is truly intelligent behaviour or just copying an example. What is happening on the web is something of a different nature, a being without a physical component, or at least not aware of the fact is has one, struggling to master concepts that are more mathematical in nature. While Hobo already exhibits complex behaviour the web entity starts from scratch. The contrast between those two is one of the most interesting parts of the novel.

The main part of the novel is devoted to Caitlin. Sawyer obviously put in a lot of effort to try and understand how a person who has never been able to see, experiences the world. Not being blind, I have no idea how accurate it is but it certainly feels convincing. Sawyer doesn’t overdo it though, despite her handicap Caitlin is pretty much what you’d expect of a teenage girl. Apart from a perverse enjoyment of mathematics that is. Seriously, that can’t be healthy. There was one thing that did bother me however, Caitlin’s discovery of her father’s autism. Even without the visual clues that seems to be hard to miss if you live with someone on a day to day basis.

There are plenty of interesting ideas in this book but it is the first in a trilogy. I guess it is not surprising but while the end of the novel is satisfying in a way, it does leave an awful lot of open questions. The main story lines are beginning to converge but the relevance to the story of Caitlin of both Hobo’s story and that of the bird flue outbreak in China is far from clear. WWW: Wake is a very good read but with so many open ends it does feel like the introduction to a much larger story. I guess the wait for the second part in the trilogy, WWW: Watch, begins. Sawyer still has a long way to go on this project but he is certainly off to a good start.

Book Details
Title: WWW: Wake
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 356
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-441-01679-2
First published: 2009


  1. I have a love-hate relationship with Robert J. Sawyer. I always end up reading his books, but as a writer he's not that great, and certainly not as great as he makes himself out to be. . . .

    Still, I have to agree about Wake. I was very surprised, because until then Sawyer had never managed to write anything that gripped me like that. I enjoyed the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy to a degree, but his characterization in those books is terrible. Wake, on the other hand, has better characterization, at least for the main characters like Caitlin. And even with characters who were less realistic, like the stereotypically-ruthless Chinese government officials, Sawyer's themes emerge in an artful manner that makes me almost forgive him for cutting such corners.

  2. He does know how to promote his own work, doesn't he? I hope he can keep this up in part two and three. I read the Neanderthal Parallax as well and I thought the second and third books were nowhere near as good as the first.