BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Internet-based intelligence known as Webmind grows even more powerful – something that does not go unnoticed by the U.S. National Security Agency’s anti-terrorist WATCH group.
PROS: Cool “What if?” extrapolations; thought-provoking use of technology; strong characters; engrossing plot.
CONS: Use of pop culture references is occasionally distracting.
BOTTOM LINE: A helluva fun read and an excellent science fiction book.
There’s something about Robert J. Sawyer’s novels that strike a pleasing science fictional chord. They encompass all the things I like about science fiction, like cool “What if?” extrapolations, portrayal of technology that leads to thought-provoking ideas, strong characters and engrossing plots. Watch, the second novel in his WWW trilogy after Wake, is no exception.
Wake detailed the emergence of an Internet-based intelligence known as Webmind. Watch picks up where Wake left off, showing us how Webmind grows to be even more intelligent, even more powerful. The danger, as might be expected, is the possibility that Webmind is perhaps growing too powerful – a possibility that does not go unnoticed by the WATCH group, an arm of the U.S. National Security Agency that monitors web-based communications for signs of terrorism and stumbles upon the existence of Webmind.
What’s interesting in Watch is not only all of the following different components that Sawyer juggles simultaneously, but also that he is able to do so without dropping any one of them:
- Webmind is a believable artificial intelligence for the purposes of fiction, both in origin and in portrayal. Webmind emerged from mutant ghost packets on the Internet which act as cellular automata that form the basis of life. Having just been “born”, Webmind’s behavior and understanding resembles that of a child. Webmind doesn’t truly know right from wrong, nor can he recognize situations which require action.
- Protagonist Caitlin Decter is a tough, smart teenager who would otherwise be overwhelmed at the turn of events had she not been tough and independent. Caitlin, born blind but given the gift of sight through technology that inadvertently allowed her alone to detect the presence of Webmind, handles things with amazing grace and level-headedness. And not just while playing parent to Webmind, but also when dealing with boys, friends, school, and with government agents who put pressure on her to reveal the details of Webmind’s existence. Sawyer again does an excellent job of reminding readers of things that sighted people might take for granted.
- The WATCH group offers a dramatic vector into the story because they see Webmind (who might otherwise be viewed as a plucky virtual pet) as a valid threat. Their goal is to kill it before it gets out of control. What initially sounds like a case of paranoia — How can you not love Webmind when he eliminates the world’s spam? — is beautifully turned on its head when Sawyer shows just exactly how powerful Webmind is. Scary stuff.
- A parallel story involving an intelligent chimpanzee/bonobo hybrid named Hobo provides it own entertainment; even more so when it connects with the Webmind thread.
There are other touches that Sawyer works into the story, too. Discussions of game theory, in particular, were fun to read. My only misgiving about the book is the same issue I had with Rollback: Sawyer’s use of pop culture references is occasionally distracting. Sure, on the one hand, such references can make the story more accessible to some readers, and to be fair, these well-known references do get the point across. (“This is just like Wargames!”) On the other, they often pull you out of the story. (One exception: Sawyer’s reference to the television show Flashforward, which is based on his books, is charmingly delivered.) I’m not sure the benefits of these references outweigh that downside, but suspect it’s a reader preference. Your mileage may vary.
That’s a small nit anyway. Even with these distractions, Watch is a helluva fun read and an excellent science fiction book.