WWW: Wake, by Robert J. Sawyer [Book Review]

Hey! Not too bad a read. Robert J. Sawyer penned the first part of his WWW trilogy, WWW:Wake, as a few separate pieces in Analog, and then, I’m supposing, filled in the blanks.

The book centers around networking and its relationshipo to sentience. The plot follows three stories, connected only by this thread.

Due to a massive influenza outbreak, the secretive Chinese government cuts off its people from the Internet, because of its decision to take care of the problem by exterminating the village where the outbreak occurred. This causes a cascading reaction that “awakens” something in the Internet.  It becomes a living being, slowly, even painfully, comes to understand it exists.

A young lady called Caitlin, blind since birth, is offered a chance to see, using a new optical technology, funded the University of Tokyo. Something goes awry, and instead of the actual world, she becomes the first person to actually be able to “see” the web, as a series of geometric shapes, colors, lines and nodes. Eventually, as the plot progresses, she is able to switch her EyePod (cute…) to either view WebSight, or, in a different mode, external reality, i.e., her mother, her schoolmates, etc.

The third story is of a primate research lab where a bonobo and an orangutan are given the opportunity to have the first cross-species live webchat. As a result, something “turns on” inside the bonobo’s mind, and the researchers realize that he is capable of more than just a few sign-language gestures, but representational art that depicts his favorite members of staff.

The first story reminds me of the computer mind “Jane” featured in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker of the Dead, and other Ender novels. You witness the birth of something unique, and then find the one person in the world who is able to see, or possibly even comprehend, the creature.

The Novel is rife with philosophical implications: the ethics of granting, and then removing, someone’s sight; is shutting down the Internet effectively killing an organism? Can a lower life form evolve into a higher one, and if so, who does it threaten?  Sawyer has no answers, but he cheerfully plods through each of these questions, and more. He occasionally becomes pedantic in his geek-speak: he is a hard Science Fiction author at the end of the day, so try not to be very shocked if you encounter a several-page-long discussion of finer points of lost packets in TCP/IP networking.

The young girl, Caitlyn, is written with incredible verisimilitude. I thought Saywer drew her perfectly, especially through her blog which tries (with a kind of geeky adolescent ineffectiveness) to be funny, interesting, and assertive as her Web alter-ego “CalcuLass.” She is a respectable protagonist, and her story is by far the most interesting of the three plots.  Her mother is overbearing, and her father, it turns out, is not only brilliant, unemotional and distant, but also autistic. “Yes, I have so told you I love you,” he recalls. “Right after your fifth grade recital.”

Deeper in the pages of the novel, the author explores the ethics of “selling” life-changing technology. Who owns Caitlyn’s eyes? The University wants to trademark EyePod, copyright any papers written by and about her (as well as the raw data feeds stored from her vision), and patent the technology. And our monkey friend Hobo? The narrowminded zoo officials in Atlanta want to get him back as soon as possible, before he reproduces with another creature, and propgates a sentient form of life.  The argument is made, quite forcefully, in fact, that the zoo does not own a creature who can now think and reason for himself.

The last story is more mundane, and quite realistic: the Chinese hacker who has been trying to break through the Government firewall is rounded up by the police for “questioning” and possibly worse. We’ve all heard the stories of CNN, Google, and other sites being blocked by China; this isn’t a surprise but it also doesn’t make very good science fiction, since Chinese bloggers, it is frequently reported, are hauled away for far more petty crimes.

The writing was quite good, despite his occasional lapse into TechnoBabble. In this series, Robert J. Sawyer proves himself to be an imaginative creator of good fiction, and I’ll be happy (after I get through the dozen or so other books sitting on my bedside table) to read the next books of the series.


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