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REVIEW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

REVIEW SUMMARY: After a long-delayed explanation, the book lives up to its potential and delivers.


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.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

6 Comments on REVIEW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

  1. hey —

    Thanks for the review.

    Would it be too much to ask to post the effing publisher data?  You’re making me work here.  Sheesh.


    # Hardcover: 368 pages
    # Publisher: Ace Books; 1 edition (7 April 2009)
    # Language English
    # ISBN-10: 0441016790
    # ISBN-13: 978-0441016792


    Doesn’t appear to be published in this market, is selling the Ace hardcover.



    sersly.  Thanks for the review.


  2. I’m looking forward to meeting with Rob again this Thursday at Audrey’s books.

  3. I read Wake when it was serialized in the November 2008 – March 2009 issues of Analog.  I liked the story and was impatient for the rest to finally arrive over the course of its serialization. I would warn readers of this comment that in order to comment on your review I reveal some plot points below.

    Robert Sawyer has a knack for creating likable and believable characters and this novel is no different.  I identified with the heroine Caitlin and even with the Webmind as he struggled to be born.  Sawyer also does a good job of fleshing out his novels with interesting material and even minor characters that are interesting (Caitlin’s autistoc father for instance)

    I disagree than that the side plots were only marginally connected to the main plot.  The Chinese sideplot is directly relevant to the creation of the webmind, and the chimpanzee sideplot provides a method of exposition that is more interesting and more literarily correct than just telling the reader.

    The cellular automata mentioned in the novel provide only part of the underlying basis for the Webmind’s consciousness.  The Chinese sideplot provides the excuse to almost sever the web in two.  This provides the bicameralism that some folks think is a necessary requirement for self-awareness and consciousness.  After this event the Webmind becomes self-aware and understands self and other and one and two, and so on.  The implication is that without the split, and the internal crisis that ensues it would not have become self-aware.

    The hybird chimpanzee in the story learns to make two dimensional representational art once he realizes that three dimensional things that he has met (his orangutan friend) can be represented in two diensions by watching and having a conversation on the webcam with his orangutan friend.  The webmind learns the same thing and then tries to communicate with Caitlin in much the same way.  I am guessing that Robert Sawyer also based the above average intelligence of this hybrid chimpanzee on some recent news stories that hybridism between the branch that produced early hominids and the branch that produced chimpanzees may have been produced early humans and perhaps is a cause of the beginning of human intelligence. 

    On the whole a good novel.  I did not realize that this would be part of a trilogy.  I will look forward to the rest.


  4. Great analysis, Richard.  I see the parallels in the firewall thread, but I’m still not sure I see why readers should still care about the blogger.  That is, why continue the story after the split and the subsequent wakening?  (Now I’m wondering if my memory is failing me and that side story pretty much ended there?)

  5. euphrosyne // May 8, 2009 at 2:04 pm //

    This was an interesting book for me at a meta level, because I read it in one day–not because it was so gripping that I just had to find out what was happening (unlike say, an Ender’s Game, the outcome of this book was clear after about 100 pages). It read so quickly not because it was compelling but because the prose was so sparse (basic? smooth? the opposite of dense) it was hard to not read it. Which was good because for me, the storytelling wasn’t good enough to merit more time.

    Judging from this book alone, Sawyer is a capable author in that he can craft competent, complementary storylines, but for my taste, the book overall felt formulaic. There was no real tension, surprise, or conflict throughout. What small tension there was (The Hoser; the slight possibility of having the eyepod taken away) felt like it was included out of conscious necessity; an annoyance to the author before he could get back to telling the “real” story, which was the somewhat plodding education of Webmind.

    Something like 100 pages is devoted primarily to this process, and it fails for me at a fairly basic level. The parallels to Helen Keller are too obvious and forced, and the author contradicts himself on very basic technical points. To wit:

    1) Webmind first gains consciousness but not verbal ability, and begins making visual/spatial deductions. Caitlin teaches it entirely visually. It learns written language. It gains superhuman intelligence, devouring all the dictionaries and text archives in the world. At this point, Webmind states that it still can’t understand/decode visual or audio files or streams. But, um…how then has it been viewing Caitlin’s visual stream all along?

    2) Since it obviously can parse video data, why does it seem to only have access to Caitlin’s, and not any of the other millions of live video feeds on the Web?

    I could go on but I doubt anyone wants to hear that. Overall, the book is a fun read if you’re not looking for anything remotely substantial or thought-provoking. If I were the author or editor, I’d have condensed this whole book into 100 pages and used the next 200 pages to tell the interesting stuff afterward…but then I guess I wouldn’t have a 3-book contract, would I? Hmmmm. 🙂


  6. To euphrosyne: I’d like to share some thoughts about the two questions you brought out. According to the book, visual signal from human eyes can now be decoded and manipulated; that’s why Dr. Kuroda is able to alter the signal to fit Caitlin’s optic nerve. But video/audio formats are mostly compressed and complicated, definitely different from how retina receives visual data. The fact that Webmind can parse signal from human eyes doesn’t necessarily imply that it has the ability to decode audio/video file format, which involves lots of mathematics so hard that I don’t think wikipedia has all the detail of those.

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