Wake: Book One In The WWW Trilogy Hardcover – Apr 14 2009
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Quill & Quire
Admirers of his previous fiction might be forgiven for feeling that, with his new novel Wake (the first in his much-ballyhooed new contract with Penguin Canada), Toronto science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has turned an unfortunate corner. While his impressive oeuvre has established Sawyer as one of our most visionary writers (with 41 awards, including a Hugo, a Nebula, and a Campbell, to prove it), Wake reads more like second-rate Michael Crichton. Fifteen-year-old Caitlin Decter has been blind her entire life, and has developed an impressive facility with navigating both the physical world (her room, her school) and the virtual one (she has an online prowess that would leave most sighted webheads in the dust). Having recently moved with her family from Texas to Waterloo, Ontario, Caitlin is gradually settling into her new life when she is contacted by a Japanese professor with an irresistible offer: he has been working on a computer-based system that might restore her sight. The implant doesn’t allow Caitlin to see the physical world, but plunges her into a surreal universe that she quickly realizes is a visualization of the Internet. She is not, however, alone in this universe: something is coming to life within the Web, building not only awareness and intelligence, but sentience. As Crichton did, Sawyer has a gift for synthesis. The science underlying Wake includes cutting-edge biology, theories of consciousness, linguistics and mathematics, computer and evolutionary sciences, and so on. There are times when the sheer amount of information is daunting, but Sawyer carefully leads the reader through the connections he has imagined. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Crichton, the science frequently overwhelms the story, and at such times Wake adopts the tone of a reader-friendly lecture, rather than a satisfying work of fiction. Sawyer also shares Crichton’s tendency to use characters as mouthpieces for his concepts (and his personal grievances: the anti-CanLit and “sci-fi should get more respect” hobby horses are frequently trotted out), rather than as fully developed individuals. Minor characters (such as a friendly, not-so-bright blonde named Sunshine) are little more than clichés, and even Caitlin herself is half-formed. The Crichton comparisons falter, however, when one looks at the narrative itself. Despite overwhelming amounts of scientific information and weaknesses in characterization, a Crichton novel always succeeds as pure storytelling, with a keen sense of pacing and an inexorable drive. Not so Wake, which is a largely passive work. Yes, things happen, and on a global scale, with secondary storylines including a bird-flu outbreak in China, a Chinese government crackdown, and the developing intelligence of an ape in the U.S., but incidents do not a story make, and Wake is largely moribund on the page. All of this should be a concern for us Sawyer fans. It’s certainly a departure from his usually impressive work, and one has to bear in mind that Wake is the first novel in a trilogy: there is much ground to be covered and foundations to be built. As a novel, however, it should still be able to stand on its own. I’m willing to give Sawyer the benefit of the doubt, based on the quality of his body of work, but I’m concerned about the next two books in the trilogy.
"Almost alone among Canadian writers, he tackles the most fundamental questions of who we are and where we might be going — while illuminating where we are now." -- National Post
"Sawyer continues to push the boundaries with his stories of the future made credible. His erudition, eclecticism, and masterly storytelling make this trilogy opener a choice selection." -- Library Journal
"Sawyer's take on theories about the origin of consciousness, generated within the framework of an engaging story, is fascinating, and his approach to machine consciousness and the Internet is surprisingly fresh." -- Booklist
"WAKE is, in the words of its heroine, made out of awesome." -- McNally Robinson Bookseller review
"Wildly thought-provoking...The thematic diversity—and profundity—makes [WAKE] one of Sawyer's strongest works to date." -- Publisher's Weekly, Starred Review
Top Customer Reviews
With that said, I am going to try to do justice to the latest book I've read: Robert J. Sawyer's WAKE - the first in his WWW trilogy.
Here is a blurb from Robert's site about the book:
'Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a genius at math ' and blind. Still, she can surf the net with the best of them, following its complex paths clearly in her mind. When a Japanese researcher develops a new signal-processing implant that might give her sight, she jumps at the chance, flying to Tokyo for the operation.
But Caitlin's brain long ago co-opted her primary visual cortex to help her navigate online. Once the implant is activated, instead of seeing reality, the landscape of the World Wide Web explodes into her consciousness, spreading out all around her in a riot of colors and shapes. While exploring this amazing realm, she discovers something ' some other ' lurking in the background. And it's getting smarter ''
In addition to Caitlin's story are a couple of seemingly unrelated events in other parts of the world. In China an outbreak of the bird flu (H5N1) is handled by the Chinese government by culling the humans that are infected as well as shutting the country off from the rest of the outside word by cutting its internet and phone connections to hide their transgression. Elsewhere, in a research facility, a Bonobo/Chimpanzee hybrid that can use ASL (American Sign Language), produces art that defies what they are 'supposed' to be capable of. Youtube videos and political strife follow. Thirdly, a growing intelligence on the world wide web begins to take form. It strains to come to terms with itself and its surroundings, yet it begins to evolve. And, like Annie Sullivan, reaching down into the depths of Helen Keller's mind, Caitlin makes a connection with this web-based entity and strives to teach it.
I consumed this book. Like with his Neanderthal Parallax novels, I completely empathize with these characters. They lift off the page and pull you along with them, particularly Caitlin. Her ability to 'see' through people and her edgy humour are brilliantly achieved and you can't help but admire her strength of character and resolve. The use of biological terms and technology are meshed throughout the story in a way that it isn't dumped on you. (It should be noted that I have a biology and information technology background, so I felt like this book was written for me. But with that said, the way he reveals the information would easily engage anyone without this knowledge.)
There are wonderful parallels and references to Helen Keller and her rise to awareness from the dark place in which she once lived as well as timely topics and subject matter that is deftly interwoven in the story. He engages in real world debates (i.e. the intelligence of apes and their ability to use sign language, the cross-breeding of species, the potential self-awareness of the internet, etc.) and employs throughout some some witty references and poignant gibes. It is obvious that Mr. Sawyer took his time to research well before writing this and it is no wonder he was won such honours as the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
This is a fantastic beginning to a much anticipated series. It ends well, but leaves you hungering for more. I very much look forward to what will come in the next novel and how Mr. Sawyer is going to engage me further in the coming books, WATCH and WONDER. Whether you are a science fiction aficionado or not, add this book to your Must Read list. It will not disappoint.
Hominids: Volume One Of The Neanderthal Parallax
It was disappointing that the three separate stories do not converge. In fact, the Chinese storyline has fallen off the grid by the last third of Wake. Hobo’s story isn’t resolved either, but given the complex concepts author Robert Sawyer brings to light, this is one of the few stories where a sequel is essential.
The theme in all three plots is about what happens when technology advances to the point where fearful individuals resort to irrational and destructive behavior to stop it. Although Caitlin is a great character and the book certainly poses interesting questions and possibilities, many of the programming details were way over my head. Still, I enjoyed this read, and was left pondering the perplexing, hi-tech world a little differently and with more wariness.
I have to admit I wanted more. And by more I don't mean quantity. Not even do I necessarily mean quality. What I wanted was more depth. But, again, that's a point of personal preference.
Still, it was that superficiality, that lack of depth, that kept me from completely engaging with the story Sawyer crafted. There were pages, even whole chapters, spent on geek-speak, which for geeks is great (I am reminded of the quartet of Big Bang Theory), but which for me caused a complete arrest of the plot, action, and character development, to the point I found myself skimming. Again, I must mitigate that statement with the caveat this is purely personal taste. I know, simply from the astonishing sales numbers for the novel, there are thousands out there who would disagree with my point of view.
This is my review, however, and so I can only bring to that review my own perspective.
Having said all that, I found the underlying concepts of the story - an awakening artificial intelligence, and the moral issue of allowing artificial intelligence to propagate - concepts which have been dealt with previously. And so, if I'm going to read about something that has previously been explored, I'm hoping for something new to be introduced to the discussion. Again, that lack of depth, that lack of uniqueness, left me hungry.
It wasn't until the last 10% of the book I found myself absorbed by relationship dynamics and characterization, and the tension around that relationship. Much of the emotional depth of that last 10% could have been infused throughout the previous 90%, and had that been achieved, the fact little new had been added to the lexicon of artificial intelligence would have been completely mitigated by a profound story about defining relationships between alien species.
But, then, maybe that's an entirely different story than the one Sawyer wished to tell.
Would I recommend Sawyer's novel, Wake? Sure I would. If you love SF and aren't interested in the touchy-feeling aspects of literature, then yes Wake is for you. If you want something else, if you're looking for profundity and provocation, then no, Wake isn't for you.
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