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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

my reads: ‘WWW: Wake’ and ‘WWW: Watch’ by Robert J. Sawyer

I love Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer’s science fiction because it’s so humanist, even more so than the genre tends to be. He explores boundaries of human experience (are you still a person if you separate your consciousness from your body? what happens if you get a rejuvenation treatment that makes you youthful again but it fails to rejuvenate the beloved spouse you were gonna spend your life with all over again?). But he also explores the extent to which we are willing to grant “humanity”… as in his Neanderthal Parallax series, in which we discover a way to travel to an alternate Earth in which Neanderthals survived to create an industrial civilization and homo sapiens didn’t. (Sawyer’s fiction was also the basis for the sadly cancelled TV ABC series FlashForward.)

And now he’s pushing that conceit even further with his WWW trilogy, the first two books of which — Wake and Watch — have been published. (Wonder is coming in 2011.) Wake follows the emergence of a sentient intelligence on the World Wide Web and how it begins to communicate with teenager Caitlin Decter, who has a special perception of the Web that allows her to recognize the intelligence in a way that no one else could have. See, Caitlin has been blind since birth thanks to a defect in how her eyes communicate with her brain; but now, a scientist has developed a new way to interpret such signals, and with the help of an experimental implant, Caitlin can now see. But her brain isn’t quite like that of a sighted person, because it has never been used to translate visual input; instead, that part of her brain has been helping her navigate the Internet. And when she shifts the input on her new implant from her eyes to the Web, she can suddenly “see” the Web as a visual construct. And something new is starting to make its presence known there…
Much of what happens in Wake rotates between the perspectives of Caitlin and that of the sentience, which doesn’t get a name until the very end of the first book. It’s a thrilling juxtaposition to follow how Caitlin learns to cope with her two new sensory experiences — sight and what she dubs Websight — and how the sentience develops its very being. It has even fewer referents than Caitlin does for what is happening to it; she knows words and concepts related to sight (like color), but the sentience doesn’t even have a body it can get sensory input from — it has only its sensory experience of the Web itself, and then the textual communication it begins to share with Caitlin.

The second book, Watch, is concerned with what happens when other people start to notice that something strange is happening online. The U.S. government, for one, is very intrigued and, later, very terrified…

The idea that a sentience could emerge on the Net isn’t a new one. Sawyer’s extrapolation of it, however, is the most shockingly plausible one that I’ve come across. But Sawyer also weaves in other ideas about sentience, intelligence, and communication among sentient beings, particularly across atypical boundaries: one subplot concerns a chimp-bonobo hybrid named Hobo who appears to have taken a leap into sentience for a reason that I won’t spoil, but which is clearly metaphorically connected to Caitlin’s situation and the development of the Net being.

It goes without saying, however, that for all of Sawyer’s exciting and provocative ideas, they are explored through warm, realistic characters and a driving plot that had me unable to put the books down, I was so eager to learn what would happen next. This isn’t a thesis (Sawyer’s books never are, but poorly written science fiction often, alas, is) — it’s a compellingly told story. It kills me that I have to wait till next year to find out where it goes from here.

WWW: Wake
[buy at Amazon U.S.]  [buy at Amazon Canada]  [buy at Amazon U.K.]

WWW: Watch
[buy at Amazon U.S.]  [buy at Amazon Canada]  [buy at Amazon U.K.]

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  • Orangutan

    Added to my ewish list! Thanks for the recommendation. It’s a shame the first Neanderthal Parallax book isn’t available in ebook format yet, that sounds really interesting.

  • Sonja

    Fascinating – definitely added to my To Read list.

  • Patrick

    That sounds interesting. I loved his Neanderthal Parallax series but after reading Calculating God I gave up on him. Calculating God is a moving, fascinating story until it suddenly becomes a completely transparent, shrill, preachy screed for intelligent design. Even if he had been touting a position I agreed with I would not have approved of the handling of the storytelling. But, WWW sounds intriguing.

  • Isobel

    Neanderthal Parallax series on my wishlist, as well as the two WWW books!

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