Review: WWW.Wake and WWW.Watch by Robert Sawyer

These books are the first two in a trilogy by Robert Sawyer.  Sawyer writes what my husband calls “hard” science fiction, which means that there’s an emphasis on the technical aspects of science and engineering, as opposed to “soft” science fiction where the story is set in a futuristic time but the science isn’t really discussed (like, say, Ray Bradbury’s or Margaret Atwood’s books).  Wikipedia says that soft science fiction is based more on the “soft sciences” like anthropology but also may be more concerned with character, society, and speculative ideas.  There is no hard and fast definition; it’s more a way to compare books within the genre.  I’d call myself a “soft” science fiction reader, even though that sounds a little girly, where my husband is definitely a “hard” science fiction reader.

Another area we disagree is in the idea of concept versus plot.  My husband wants the concept of the story to be primary, where I want good plot and character development to come first.  I think concepts should be conveyed subtly through a good story, rather than described at length.  So we don’t agree on tons of books but we still like to share.  I’m hit or miss on Sawyer’s books but LOVE his Hominids trilogy; my husband likes them all.

I read Wake about 9 months ago and Watch about two weeks ago, but I never reviewed the first one, and it’s hard to talk about one without the other.

I didn’t love Wake, so without my husband’s recommendation I probably wouldn’t have made it to Book 2, but I’m glad I did, as it develops into a much more interesting story.  The trilogy begins with the story of Caitlin, a teenage girl who is blind and loves math and computers.  Caitlin’s parents are both scientists, which makes it understandable that she undergoes a number of experimental procedures to fix her vision, with no success.  Wake begins with her receiving a call from a Japanese scientist, Dr. Kuroda, who proposes a new procedure.  He theorizes that it’s not her vision that’s broken, it’s her eye’s ability to communicate images to the brain.  To grossly oversimplify, the procedure would insert something in Caitlin’s eye that would translate all the images to a handheld electronic device, which would then process the data and translate back to the brain.  Then the eye and brain would communicate and Caitlin would see.

Caitlin and parents agree to try the surgery and go to Japan for the procedure.  I have trouble finding this believable, considering that some scientist calls their house out of the blue and the parents agree to this strange, never-tried-before procedure on their teenage daughter.  But the parents are scientists and presumably conversed with Dr. Kuroda quite a bit about what would happen.  Also as my husband points out, wouldn’t you try almost anything to give your daughter sight?  Hmm, experimental brain surgery?  I’m just not sure.  I had laser surgery on my own eyes, which was terrifying enough, though VERY much desired.  But that’s a decision I made as an adult, for myself, and about a very well-established procedure.

After some trial and error, the procedure actually works.  At first, Caitlin can only see a strange display of connecting lines – this turns out to be the Internet.  But at some point the process is corrected and when the device is switched on, she can see through one eye.  When it’s switched off, she sees the Internet.

(Note: Spoilers follow for WWW.Wake so stop here if you plan on reading it.)

The story has a second mysterious narrator, who is revealed to be an emergent being that lives inside the Internet.  Because Caitlin can see the Internet, she can communicate with this being and quickly understands what it is (this was believability stumbling block #2). Instead of revealing the presence of this being, she decides instead to give it knowledge so it can read and communicate.  She calls it Webmind.

Personally, I found the storyline about Caitlin regaining her sight to be fascinating – what it’s like for example, to suddenly see the faces of people you’ve known all your life, and to have to learn basic pre-school skills like reading (she reads Braille); colors; and basic communications like understanding facial expressions and making eye contact.  She becomes an interesting character because she’s academically brilliant but is like a child in terms of seeing things for the first time.

The rest of the story I struggled with, mainly because if I had something in my head and/or my computer trying to communicate with me, I would first think I was crazy, and secondly I would run screaming to the nearest authorities.  The fact that she hides the existence of the entity and then feeds it information until it becomes vastly more intelligent than humans seems incredibly foolish and naïve.  Even for a teenager.

That’s Wake.  Watch picks up where Wake leaves off, only to my great relief Caitlin finally informs her parents and Dr. Kuroda about Webmind.  Because they are scientists they are more excited than terrified at the idea of an intelligent being that lives in the Internet.  However, Caitlin soon realizes that she’s created a being with enormous power and no emotional conscience –even though she insists that Webmind is “good” – so she has to work with Webmind to develop a code of ethics for its behavior.  For example, if it reads an email or sees a web video about someone wanting to commit suicide, what should it do?  And is it even okay that it can read every email of every human being?  To make the story more interesting, federal intelligence officials who are monitoring the Internet for terrorist activity notice the surge in activity and become alarmed.

That’s as far as I’ll go with the story, but it was much more well-developed than the first book, and also makes a lot of interesting points about how the Internet affects our daily lives, what are the privacy implications of our “internet presence”; and how government does – and doesn’t – control the internet.

I still found the characters in this book rather awkwardly written, especially as Caitlin enters into her first romance.  Also there’s a side plot about the intelligence of bonobos and chimpanzees which for most of these two books is completely unrelated to Caitlin’s story, and when Sawyer ties the two story lines together it still doesn’t seem to impact the story very much.  I think by the end of this trilogy I will say the whole thing could have been compressed into one, more tightly written novel.  But that gets back to the discussion of what’s more important, the writing or the concept?

As a side note, while reading this book, I was also watching the debut of Watson on Jeopardy.  Now, Watson is artificial intelligence while Webmind is a living being, so it’s not at all the same thing.  But still it was fascinating to watch Jeopardy and think, this is the start of something.  Years down the road we’ll remember that we saw the first real artificial intelligence on Jeopardy. And who knows where it will go from there.

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