BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Internet-based intelligence known as Webmind fends off the attacks of the U.S. and Chinese governments while trying to prove that it is a benevolent entity.
PROS: Strong characterizations; thoughtful “what if” scenarios; fast-moving and engaging story.
CONS: The optimistic tone of the book was somewhat limiting; distracting pop culture references.
BOTTOM LINE: A satisfying conclusion to a worthwhile series.
With Wonder, Robert J. Sawyer concludes the WWW trilogy that began with Wake and Watch, a series that portrays how the World Wide Web gains consciousness. In this final book, we witness the attempts of fearful governments to eradicate Webmind; in the U.S., this includes enlisting the aid of black hat hackers, who, it is discovered, are mysteriously disappearing.
Is Webmind to blame for the missing hackers? That’s the suspicion of Peyton Hume, top AI expert and head of the WATCH group, an arm of the U.S. National Security Agency that monitors web-based communications for signs of terrorism. They’ve already seen what Webmind can do and want to eliminate him before he grows even more powerful and becomes impervious to any attempts to eradicate him. Meanwhile, aiding (and siding with) Webmind is Caitlin Decter, a formerly blind girl whose newfound ability to see helped her to discover Webmind and bond with it.
As the final installment in a trilogy, Wonder is generally consistent with Wake and Watch in many ways. That is, all the things that worked before work again: the strong characterization of Caitlin as she deals with sight, friends and boys; the depiction of what it would be like to have sight after being blind; the fast-moving and engaging story; thoughtful “what if” scenarios, etc. But one of the things that didn’t work so well before remains as well; namely, the pop culture references that Sawyer sprinkles throughout the story were often distracting, although admittedly they likely help make the book more accessible to non-sf readers.
My only other complaint is another double-edge sword that has to do with whether Webmind is ultimately good or evil. Artificial intelligence is not a new theme in science fiction, but as Sawyer notes in the book via Webmind, the majority of portrayals are as the “evil being” bent on destroying its creators. As if to address the imbalance, Sawyer’s portrayal is openly optimistic. Throughout the series, for example, Webmind continues to bestow gifts upon humanity in a variety of ways. This optimism is simultaneously refreshing and limiting. Without the danger of a rogue AI, the book lacks a higher level of drama it would otherwise have. This becomes evident in the latter half of Wonder when certain events make the reader unsure of Webmind’s true intentions. The reader, sympathizing with Webmind up until that point, suddenly questions whether he or she should be rooting for WATCH after all. The novel suddenly took on a whole new level or portent. Is Webmind truly the benevolent entity he claims to be, or is WATCH the only team that sees the truth and can stop him? Sadly, that dramatic scenario was too-quickly resolved, but around just long enough to make me wonder if the optimism was perhaps too limiting.
The good news is that these are minor speed bumps in a book that remains an excellent read when all is said and done. Wonder is a very satisfying conclusion to a worthwhile series.