Arts/Literature

Hugo Best Novel Nominee Review: Wake, by Robert W. Sawyer

We leave alternate Americas and possible futures and return to the here and now with Wake, the first volume of Robert W. Sawyer’s planned trilogy about an emerging consciousness on the World Wide Web. Just to make sure we get it, Sawyer is titling the subsequent volumes Watch and Wonder. Well, this might not be so bad if this had been a better book. But it left me feeling pretty unimpressed, sadly, for all the interest that this concept might generate. Because as Sawyer points out (in the press release accompanying the book’s publication), the web will soon have as many connections as there are neural connections in the human brain. This does raise a tantalizing prospect, one that science fiction writers have been exploring since Arthur C. Clarke in the 1960s—an emergent artificial intelligence.

Sawyer deliberately takes a route contrary to the cyberpunk ethos initially forged by William Gibson in Neuromancer. Where cyberpunk is dark, gloomy and, yes, punky, Sawyer has us approach the concept through the persona of 15-year-old Caitlin Decter, blind from birth but who has her sight restored to her. Caitlin is, purely by coincidence, a math genius and a whiz programmer, all of which she finds helpful as the book progresses. And she’s a really great kid too. Sawyer knows his stuff, to be sure—we learn a bit about cellular automata, information theory, and quite a lot about the visual system. And the analogies between Caitlin’s learning to see and the emerging consciousness’s grappling with reality, or what it perceives as the representation of reality, are constant throughout the book. In fact, maybe too much so, although I note that one reviewer seems to think this is a Young Adult book. I can see how he got that impression.

This is a worthy subject, and Sawyer clearly has thought about this a great deal. He is planning a trilogy, after all (which is why there are a whole raft of loose ends relating to a bunch of sub-plots involving skullduggery by the Chinese government, and a chimp/bonobo hybrid who paints portraits). So why was I disappointed? Several reasons. First, it does read like a YA book. While the characters are well described, and Caitlin is endearing, they’re still pretty stock characters, and it was hard to take them seriously as anything more than that. I’ve been reading science fiction for decades now, and we’re still writing books about teenage geniuses with physicist fathers? This could have been written by Robert Heinlein as one of his books for boys, although in this case it would be books for girls.

Second, I just didn’t believe it. Sawyer does well when he deals with real people (often scientists, to be sure) who face a situation and have to deal with its consequences, and he’s usually pretty good at considering the societal implications of whatever issue he’s writing about. But in this case, it’s all a bit too relaxed. Maybe that’s because things will start heating up in the next volume. But I found the tempo entirely too laid back, especially when Caitlin discovers sight. I still have a vivid memory of the characters in Daniel F. Galouye’s Dark Universe as they encountered light for the first time, and it was thrilling. Sawyer’s description of Caitlin’s first sights just don’t impress—yes, it’s an emotional experience, and a tearful one too, but it all seems a bit unconvincing. It reads as if she’s brushing her teeth. Yes, yes, she’s smart, we know that, but still—it can’t be that simple. Running The Helen Keller analogy is a nice touch at first, but also gets a bit belabored.

Nor was I convinced by the entity’s coming to knowledge, if that’s the correct term. (Just what would be the correct term, anyway?) Sawyer attempts something difficult here, and it’s disappointing, but not surprising, that he doesn’t quite pull it off. Because as soon as I figured out what this entity was, all sorts of questions started occurring to me about why it was doing this, or how could it determine that, that all more or less led me to think this was all a bit too convenient. The scenes describing this process of how the entity learns should be the crux of the book, and yet it feels incomplete and artificial. Perhaps the problem is Sawyer’s straightforward (or boring, depending on your point of view) style. While he has no hesitation in describing a lot of the relevant science along the way when people are having conversations, the entity’s coming to knowledge is deliberately presented as moving from some sort of inchoate flailing around to gathering more knowledge as it goes along. And while this sort of process is difficult to describe, surely it deserves a bit more explication than Sawyer provides us with. How does the entity get the language to begin describing its experiences in the first place, for example?

I suppose all of this must be by design, and we get to the good stuff in the next two volumes. Even if they pick up, somehow I suspect that I’ll still be scratching my head, wondering how this book got nominated for a Hugo. The fact that I have to think about whether I want to bother with the forthcoming volumes tells me that I already know the answer. I’m not alone, apparently.

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