Let’s say you’re the newly-sentient internet. How would you decipher
the meaning of all the bits and bytes whizzing past you? And what about
the real world outside your electronic realm?
That’s the dilemma faced by a new form of life in Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake, the first book in the WWW trilogy. The rest of the book is a very carefully marked path for this lifeform to move from fetus to birth, metaphorically speaking. As we’ll see, that’s a pretty close parallel to 2001: a space odyssey. More on the Clarke motif in a moment.
Near future stories are a difficult thing to tell. Charles Stross talks about this quite a lot, maybe because his books can rely heavily on the novelty of trying to capture next year’s headlines. On the other end of the science fiction spectrum, William Gibson last few books are set in the present day, but given a science-fictional sheen by the sheer power of Gibson’s writing style.
Sawyer has made the near-future tale his specialty, and he gets around most of the problems inherent in the hybrid genre by focusing tightly on character. Rollback, his book that preceded Wake, was a marvel of medical speculation bound indivisibly with the trials and tribulations of a couple who chooses to live on the edge of health science.
Wake, like Rollback, is really explicitly set up to carry along the general reader. Lots of specialized sf-frisson for well-read fans (more on that in a moment), but the major pieces of the book follow one another very carefully. This is a clever book, and not just in a synthetic “hey look at me” way. Sawyer commits to his characters, and they do interesting things that make an effective and cumulative impression on the emotions of the reader. A few false notes maybe on the teenage-girl-protagonist file, but very few.
Like Gibson, Sawyer also notes the futuristic/ground-breaking nature of things that have happened in the past. In particular, there’s a strong storyline in the book related to Helen Keller. But Sawyer ventures further into the future with this book than Gibson did in, say, Spook Country.
The story of Wake, briefly: Caitlin Decter is a blind girl, a regular teenager other than her blindness, i.e. she spends a lot of time online. One day she receives an email from a Japanese scientist who says that he might have a “cure” for her rare form of blindness: her retinas are functional, but her brain is not decoding the signals properly. A trip to Tokyo with her family, then she has an implant that processes the signal for her. The signal makes a loop to the Tokyo research lab, then back to her implant.
See where this is going? The new internet entity finds this signal fascinating, contact ensues, and so on. Sawyer is pressing the buttons for long-time aficionados of this kind of story, but the explanation is crystal clear for anyone. Caitlin is discovering sight for the first time – this part of the story is told very well – and her visual signal helps the new lifeform learn along with her.
There are a few other steps in the birth of internet-based sentience, and all of them are as well-told and clearly-explained.
Wake can be read by someone completely cold in the genre; it also rewards fans, notably with an in-your-face argument against pessimism. Several times, Sawyer mentions other cautionary tales about computer sentience, and the book builds up towards a moment that is an explicit rejection of everything from The Terminator to 2001’s HAL to The Matrix.
I’m curious to see where the next two books in the trilogy take the storyline, since Sawyer has handled the initial setup so confidently. The moment at the end of this book, the Star Child moment of 2001’s conclusion, the moment where Neo flies away from the telephone booth, can be a dangerous one. In both of the examples I’ve just mentioned, the story worked really well up to the moment where the protagonist/main entity gained great new powers. After that… not so pretty. The sequels to 2001 resemble the Matrix sequels in their aimlessness and lack of memorable plot developments.
Wake is just about the most perfect slab of setup I’ve seen, so Sawyer better have something good lined up next! The odds are against him, based on my experience in the genre. And it goes back to that “human protagonist” thing as well: we can understand Neo when he’s a regular guy, but comprehensible motivations go out the window in the subsequent movies. What the heck will a sentient internet get up to? If Sawyer cracks this one, it will be quite a story.
Did anyone watch the TV version of Sawyer’s Flashforward? I saw just a few episodes, and it didn’t seem like the show captured the relatable character work that makes Sawyer’s books so interesting.