BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Caitlin, a young blind girl, is given the ability to “see” the World Wide Web and discovers there a lurking consciousness.
PROS: Caitlin is an inspiring character; fast-moving story; engaging plot.
CONS: The lack of explanation of how Webmind gains consciousness looms over the story in the first half of the book.
BOTTOM LINE: I’m eagerly wondering what comes next.
Wake is the first novel in Robert J Sawyer’s new trilogy, WWW, about how the World Wide Web gains consciousness. In this book, we witness the birth of the entity that will eventually be referred to as Webmind.
It’s through the story of Caitlin Decter that we get to see how this is done. Caitlin is a young girl who has been blind since birth. She is chosen by a Japanese researcher (Dr. Kuroda) for an experimental procedure that uses new technology allowing someone with her particular form of blindness to be given sight. The experiment doesn’t go quite as planned, however. Caitlin cannot initially see the real world at first, but she can visualize the landscape of the World Wide Web, thanks to a device that connects the hardware behind her left eye with the World Wide Web. It is through this unique visualization that she discovers a lurking intelligence; one that she comes to realize is the World Wide Web itself.
Sound like a large pill to swallow? Sawyer’s usual fast-moving and engaging plotting won’t do the trick alone. Such a premise demands a believable explanation if it is to support the story. Throughout the entire first half of the book, though, that huge question mark looms prominently in the background: How, exactly, is the World Wide Web able to gain consciousness? The explanation eventually given – that extraneous “ghost packets” of the Internet act as cellular automata that serve as the basis of consciousness – was the eventual key needed to properly suspend disbelief. Once that information was finally given, the story was, in effect, set free from the confines of the unbelievable and began living up to its potential.
Wake has an inspiring character in Caitlin: she’s young (15 years old) and smart (she’s got a knack for Mathematics) and web savvy. She’s also quite independent despite her blindness. Sawyer seems to have done his research regarding what it’s like to be born blind; or at least, some of the experiences he describes were things that had never crossed my mind before. In that respect, the story was educational. Caitlin’s blindness is also a convenient hook on which to hang symbolism involving Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Ironically, it’s Caitlin (the blind girl) who becomes the teacher to Webmind as it learns about the outside world and grows in intelligence, even ominously surpassing the intelligence of humans.
There are two minor side stories presented that – so far in the series – are only marginally connected with the main thread of Caitlin and Webmind. The first one shows how the Chinese government cut off web access across its border to prevent the relaying of information regarding a biological threat, and the attempts of a blogger to cross over that national firewall. The second side story is about a chimpanzee that seems to be more intelligent than would be expected. It’s hard to tell at this point, beyond the apparent themes of control and intelligence, what these secondary plots have to do with Webmind’s story.
But I’m willing to wait and see. Wake is ultimately a very good story that has me eagerly wondering what comes next.