Saturday, January 29, 2011

WWW: Watch - Robert J. Sawyer

I recently realized that I still hadn't read this book despite rather liking the first part in the WWW trilogy. Since the final book is expected to be released in April, now seems to be a good time to get if off the to read stack. I thought the first book, WWW: Wake, also the first I have read by Sawyer, was a very interesting novel on many levels. The trilogy deals with consciousness in various forms and Saywer uses some unusual protagonists to tell this story. I have since read Saywer's Neanderthal Parallax, which after a strong start in Hominids, finishes a disappointment with de decidedly weaker sequels Humans and Hybrids. After having read WWW: Watch I'm left wondering if something similar is going to happen to this trilogy.

WWW: Watch picks up the story where we left it in the first book. Fifteen year old and, until recently, blind girl Caitlin Decter has made contact with the conciousness that has arisen on the world wide web. The question that needs answering is what to do next? Caitlin is worried that if the existence of Webmind, as the entity is called, becomes common knowledge, someone will try to take him out. Still, she has to trust someone. There are things Caitlin cannot do for Webmind and she can't be by his (Caitin insists Webmind is male) side twenty-four hours a day. There is such a thing as school after all. Reluctantly Caitlin informs her parents and so Webmind is introduced to the world.

Caitlin's fears are not entirely unjustified. Without her knowledge the Web Activity Threat Containment Headquarters (WATCH), a branch of the American intelligence agency NSA, has figured out what is going on. Monitoring the communication between Caitin, her parents and Webmind they, naturally, see a threat. What they need is a way to take out Webmind but if it has an off switch, the location of it is not apparent. There appears to be only one way to learn more about it, and that is asking the Decters. Unfortunately they reside in Canada and are not willing to cooperate.

In this novel Sawyer sets out developing some of the ideas he set loose on the reader in the first book. It is a book that deals with consequences for the most part. He describes Caitin's response to seeing the world for the first time, Webmind's reaction to being able to communicate with humans and the world's reaction on finding out Webmind exists, among other things. The way these developments are portrayed are not quite as convincing as in the first novel. Especially the character development of Caitlin leaves something to be desired.

In the first novel, I thought Sawyer managed to depict the world of a blind teenager quite convincingly (as far as someone with reasonably good eyesight can judge anyway). The challenges posed by a PC for instance, are quite detailed in that book. In this novel, I feel Sawyer slips. It's in the details, the way Caitlin responds to being able to see mostly, but also an unguarded comment on how the only chore in the Decter household Caitlin was able to perform is setting the table. That's on top of the problems Sawyer, a middle-aged male who to my knowledge does not have children, of getting into the mind of a teenage girl. It's a valiant attempt but it doesn't fully succeed. It gets even worse when Caitlin decides she is in love.

Webmind is handled a lot better. He, for the moment I'll agree with Caitlin, is an interesting character, a hugely intelligent entity coupled with an almost childlike naïveté about the world. Given the amount of science fiction that deals with artificial intelligence (can Webmind be considered AI without having been purposely created by humans?) turning against humanity, it is not surprising some of the characters, most notably Caitlin's mother, keep this possibility in the back of their mind when dealing with him. Sawyer never let's Webmind do anything remotely evil, although it does need some pointers on privacy, but the author clearly shows what damage Webmind is capable of, if he put his mind to it. There's a subtle sense of suspicion you can't quite shake even if you dismiss all the intelligence agency nonsense. I wonder if this aspect of the novel will be further developed in the last novel of the trilogy.

Another noticeable difference between the first and the second book is that Sawyer is more preachy in this novel. He's never made a secret of the fact that he prefers rationality over religion or that he quite likes Canada and would not like to see certain aspects of US society introduced there. There is nothing wrong with these opinions of course, in fact I agree with him for the most part, but the way they are woven into the story is annoying at some points. I know Thanksgiving is not on the same day in the US and Canada (and there is no such thing here in the Netherlands!), I know the outlook on the history of both nations is very different on either side of the border and still tinged by nationalism in some cases. There's quite a long list of little items such as these. They are only marginally relevant to the story, there is absolutely no need to bludgeon the reader with it. To top it all off, Sawyer includes a reference to FlashForward, the television series based on one of his stories, which is the most shameless bit of self-promotion I've come across in a novel.

These little annoyances add up an distract to what Saywer has to say on consciousness and the rise of Webmind. That is a shame because the author adds a whole lot to what was already discussed in WWW: Wake. Caitlin's father performs a Turing test on Webmind for instance, which I consider one of the more interesting scenes in the book. The results and implications are very interesting but it doesn't settle whether or not Webmind is conscious in the way humans are. It looks like Sawyer's got some more ground to cover on this subject. In this novel he's beginning to integrate the story of Webmind and that other non-human conciousness, the Bonobo/Chimpanzee hybrid Hobo. I look forward to seeing how this will develop in WWW: Wonder.

Overall I guess there were a few too many little annoyances in this book the make it as good a read as WWW: Wake was. Although that book does clearly contain some of the same bad habits as Sawyer displays here, it is a lot more muted in that novel. I will admit that my opinion of this novel may have been a bit coloured by reading the Neanderthal Paralax in the mean time though. Still, I do hope Sawyer can raise his game a bit for the final novel and prevent this trilogy from ending in disappointment. There is plenty to work with in this series, he should still be able to reach a satisfying conclusion.

Book Details
Title: WWW: Watch
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 352
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-441-01818-5
First published: 2010

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