by Robert J. Sawyer
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441016792
Date: 07 April 2009 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
I expected Sawyer's latest book, WWW:WAKE, to be a pretty good read. Rob can be counted on for that, along with some gentle mind altering as he rolls out his latest ideas. I didn't expect it to be a brilliant look at interspecies communication with some remarkable insights into the future of artificial intelligence. Reading WWW:WAKE opened my eyes. What does a blind fifteen year old girl from Texas living in Canada, a Chimp/Bonobo hybrid that knows ASL, and a web consciousness that's barely aware of itself have in common? They're all about to discover the world through new eyes.
Caitlin's been blind since birth. Her eyes are functional, but there's a signal processing error in her nervous system that keeps her from seeing. It doesn't keep her from exploring either the virtual or real world though, and she leverages the technology available to her to web surf, chat, update her LiveJournal, and pretty much everything else an almost sixteen year old girl does. While Caitlin may be visually impaired, she's anything but handicapped.
Her nom-de-web, Calculass, lets you know that she's more than just a pretty girl who can't see; she's a budding mathematician as well. Not too surprising, since her mother has a Ph.D. in games theory, and her father moved them to Canada to accept a position at a research institute where he could just "think all day".
Then a Japanese computer scientist develops a signal processing device that can be implanted behind one of her eyes, and possibly bring the world of sight to her...if it works.
Rob Sawyer does a lot with this story, taking a look into the world of the blind and showing how that world has been opened up by braille computer displays, voice readers and other tech tools. He also gives us a first hand view of what the journey from dark to light is like for a teenage girl, as well as for a web consciousness that's trying to make sense of the void it finds itself in.
I'm hedging on details here because I want you to meet the players for yourself. Rob's done a good job with the personalities in the book. I found his channeling of a 15 year old a bit painful at first, but either he got the hang of it, or I got used to it...and I settled in after a few pages.
While the technology that Caitlin uses to attempt to restore her eyesight has interesting implications, the really good idea that the author brings up is essentially one about open source artificial intelligence. Given an intelligent kernel and a little guidance, he suggests, the world wide web itself is just what a growing web consciousness needs to get the big picture. Since it can access and analyze the vast amounts of information available online, the web is the perfect growth medium for AI.
You can find a similar variation on this theme in Jame's P. Hogan's Two Faces of Janus, though from a different perspective.
There's also a side story running through the book about a chimp/hobo hybrid that has learned ASL and is able to talk to another ASL enabled primate via web cam. Though this figures into the issue of the web consciousness's own attempts at communication, it ultimately doesn't go anywhere, and I wish the author had either made it more integral to the main story or pushed it farther away. As it is, you keep waiting for a collision of story arcs that never really happens, and we're left with out closure on on part at the end anyway.
Who do I think this book is targeted at? I'm sure the author has a pretty broad range in mind, and I think he's likely to score a hit with everyone from Gibson and Stephenson's crowd to science oriented YA readers of both genders looking for a summer read. If books were movies, I'd suggest this on a double bill with Neuromancer, which Rob can't resist making a humorous reference to, "The sky above the island was the color of television turned to a dead channel..." he mentions, and which we may remember is taken from opening line to Gibson's classic. But he continues, "...which is to say it was a bright, cheery blue" which pretty much sums up the difference between the two books. In Neuromancer, there was a presumption of decay and heartlessness, while here there's the opposite - people (and other entities) are as often helpful as hateful, though Sawyer does not dismiss selfishness or callousness by any means.
WWW:WAKE is one of Robert Sawyer's best efforts and one that will open your eyes to new possibilities.