Robert J. Sawyer is one of my favorite science-fiction writer ever since I discovered the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy: Hominids / Humans / Hybrids (highly recommended). I have worked my way through almost everything he has written and getting a new book by him is always a source of great anticipation.
His latest book, WWW: Wake is the first volume in another trilogy to come. Because it is a first volume, there is a lot of exposition work being done throughout. Different narrative threads are initiated without coming to any conclusions (the Chinese storyline or the Hobo storyline). I guess we’ll have to wait for that in the next volume.
The story, in this first installment, focuses on Caitlin Decter, a blind American teenager, who undergoes an experimental procedure that allows her to regain sight in one eye. However, in addition to seeing the real world, Caitlin becomes also able to see the World Wide Web (if they ever make a movie out of this, the visuals to represent Websight – seeing the web – should be interesting). Furthermore, there seems to be something more than the Web. Some form of consciousness has emerged as well and is getting smarter pretty fast.
This, of course, lays out a few question that, I am guessing, the next volumes will tackle. What is the entity, exactly? What kind of moral being is it? What are its intentions (now that it can figure that out)?
The book spends a lot of space on Caitlin herself, giving her multiple layers and complexities. She is a teenager, with all the baggage that goes with that. She suffers from having an aloof father (who, we learn later, is actually autistic) and a bright mother who gave up her own professional ambitions. Caitlin is also a math genius and thoroughly a millenial whose disability does not seem an impairment when it comes to using Web 2.0 stuff. Having positioned her as such a stable character, then, the book focuses on her adaptation to being able to see (both the real world and the Web).
This is a common pattern for Sawyer. Several of his books are constructed in a similar fashion: an internal transformation of the main character drives the plot. This is also the case in Rollback, Minscan, or Frameshift. These transformations involve personal questioning regarding identity and morality as well as one’s place in the world. The pattern is from the inside out.
This is somewhat the opposite pattern that is found in Robert Charles Wilson’s work when the transformation is usually social first, impacting everyone (and the main characters) in different fashion (from the outside in). Which is why the sociologist in me is usually a little happier with RCW’s work… which is why I initially said that sawyer is one of my favorites. RCW holds the title (Julian Comstock can’t arrive fast enough). Robert Sawyer is a solid number two.
That being said, Wake is, like all of Sawyer’s novels I have read, a page-turner. The least interesting parts, to me, were the initial monologues of the web-dwelling entity. The whole book is first-person narrations from the different characters involved: Caitlin, the entity, Shoshanna the primatologist, or Sinanthropus the Chinese blogger.
So, Sawyer has laid out a trail of crumbs for us. What is the link between all these things: a blind girl regaining her sight, a web-dwelling entity getting smarter, a Chimp who can paint portraits, a Chinese blogger constantly trying to dodge the police state? And what does this all have to do with an epidemic in China? There are other chracters involved, who are also not, thankfully, caricatures: Caitlin’s parents, Dr Kuroda (the Japanese scientist whose procedure restored Caitlin’s vision), Dr Qang Li the Chinese epidemiologist in charge of monitoring the brutal epidemic in a rural region of China or even Caitlin’s Muslim friend, Bashira, not to forget Hobo the primate.
It is indeed a rich novel, with multiple layers that will probably tackle the ideas that seem dear to Sawyer (consciousness, for instance) all woven into an entertaining narrative. I hope he churns out the next volumes of the trilogy faster than Charles Stross with the Merchant Princes series.