Tuesday, April 19, 2011

WWW: Wonder - Robert J. Sawyer

The final part in Robert J. Sawyer's latest trilogy was released earlier this month. I liked the first novel, WWW: Wake, a lot so I've kept an eye out for the sequels. Unfortunately I thought the second part WWW: Watch, which I read earlier this year, was not nearly as strong as the first. I hate to leave series unfinished however, so let's have a go at the third book. WWW: Wonder is the sixth book by Sawyer I've read, and in all six he has the tendency to bludgeon the reader with his views on science, religion and society. Even for me and, by and large, I agree with his views, this does not make for good reading. The previous novel in this trilogy was particularly marred by this and as a result I enjoyed it a lot less than book one. WWW: Wonder does not escape it entirely but my fear that the WWW trilogy would end in a disappointment similar to the Neanderthal Parallax, didn't materialize either. It does have a few aspects I am not thrilled about though.

The secret of Webmind's existence is out, he has introduced himself to the general public and launched a PR-offensive by eliminating all spam e-mail from the Internet. Still, not everybody is convinced of Webmind's good intentions and the pressure to find a way to get rid of him persists. In the mean time, Caitlin Decter is enjoying her 15 minutes of fame. She has been taken from school after a run-in with the Canadian intelligence service and is now being home schooled. Although Webmind is now free to chat with just about everybody on the planet with an Internet connection, Caitlin, or prime as he sometimes thinks of her, remains special. Her input will be crucial in creating a place for himself in human society.

In WWW: Watch, Sawyer managed to create and atmosphere of subdued suspicion. The people at WATCH, who are paid to be suspicious, didn't quite manage to convince me that Webmind was a genuine threat. On the other hand, Webmind wasn't too successful in convincing me otherwise either. It was one of the stronger parts of the previous novel. Sawyer is much more explicit in that respect in WWW: Wonder. The character of Colonel Hume, someone who is determined to see Webmind cleansed of the Internet, uncovers some disturbing facts. Some of the best hackers known to the intelligence community, people whom Hume considers capable of writing the code necessary to achieve Webmind's eradication, are disappearing. Suspicious, but not really Webmind's style.

While Webmind sets off all Hume's alarm bells, his behaviour as witnessed by the rest of the planet becomes increasingly that of humanity's saviour. One of the works is finding a cure for cancer, or more accurately, combining all human knowledge (found on the Internet) on it and combining it in new ways that suggests a possible cure. He reunited people who have lost track of each other, prevents crime and uses his Big Brother capabilities for a lot of other good causes as well. Where in the previous novel Webmind makes you suspicious, these two extremes are so far apart that is seems almost impossible we're talking about the same entity here. I appreciate Sawyer's attempt to break away from the line of reasoning, and countless science fiction novels, that an artificial intelligence will automatically see humans as inferior and a threat (or worse, a pest to be exterminated). It is definitely a theme that sets this trilogy apart from other novels, but a slightly more subtle approach would have been nice.

One other fascinating idea that pops up in this novel is what happens if part of the Internet is disconnected from the rest, thus splitting Webmind in two parts. Somewhere along the line, I can remember if it was in the first or second book, perhaps both, Sawyer already mentions that a certain threshold, a minimum of complexity in the system needs to be reached in order for Webmind to remain conscious. Here, both parts are seriously diminished, causing the smaller of the two parts to behave erratic. Again, Sawyer chooses to go for an extreme here and portrays the smaller part of Webmind as some sort of evil twin. I thought this part of the story a bit underdeveloped. Why does one part of Webmind seek to reunite the two entities where the other doesn't even seem to be aware of the other or the loss of such a large part of itself? It could have made a very interesting story line, with possibilities for parallels with certain psychological conditions for instance. Its a pity the author doesn't dig a bit deeper here.

I don't consider WWW: Wonder a great novel but there is still a nice mix of ideas on consciousness, information technology and the sheer impact the Internet is having on today's society. Sawyer also includes a little less Canadian peculiarities into this book, which is a good thing. I am all for cultural diversity but if you do decide to include it, please make sure it is relevant to the story. Despite my quibbles with some aspects of the novel, it was an enjoyable read. Sawyer concludes the book with an epilogue reminiscent of the writing of Arthur C. Clarke, which I though was a nice touch. On the whole the trilogy left me with the feeling that it leaned a bit too heavily on interesting ideas at the expense of a good plot. I guess Sawyer's book is not unlike Webmind in that respect. Good at combining already existing information into new patterns, but a little light on artistic creativity.

Book Details
Title: WWW: Wonder
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 338
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-441-01976-2
First published: 2011

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