WWW:Wake

WWW:Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fifteen-year-old Caitlin Decter moves from Texas to a suburb of Toronto when her physicist father gets a new job at a prestigious think tank. A move like this would be traumatic for any teenager, but more so for Caitlin because she is blind. Although she has been blind from birth, Caitlin is a brilliant mathematician who surfs the internet with ease. Her sight is restored by a doctor in Japan using an experimental device dubbed an “eyePod.” At first, however, she finds that instead of seeing the world around her, she can see the structure of the World Wide Web in a riot of colors and shapes. This is because Caitlin’s brain had co-opted her primary visual cortex to help her navigate online. She eventually gains regular sight, but ultimately realizes that something in the Web is trying to communicate with her (the entity that Caitlin will eventually contact introduces itself on the first page).

Meanwhile, in China, to stem a lethal outbreak of bird flu the government gasses an area of several thousand people. To cover it up, the Chinese leaders temporarily disconnect the entire country’s web access from the rest of the world. One young man, a dissident blogger who goes by the alias Sinanthropus suspects that the loss of internet access to the outside world is no accident, and finds himself in danger from the authorities when he begins to investigate.

In San Diego, a chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid named Hobo creates a painting of his keeper Shoshana Glick on his own volition, demonstrating a burgeoning ability for abstract thinking.

The novel is well told, with quick pacing and interesting, if not always convincing, characters. Complex concepts are presented in terms that are understandable to an average reader. The book’s intriguing ideas resonate with believability; certainly Sawyer has done his homework. It is a book that should appeal to bright teenagers as well as adults.

Although Caitlin is a very likable character, her manner is not very much like a real teenager’s, even a gifted one—the danger of a middle-age man writing in the voice of a teenage girl. Moreover, for a genius with a great memory, Caitlin is uncharacteristically clueless about her father’s behavior until about two-thirds of the way through the book—it just didn’t ring true.

The subplots are interesting, but are only tangentially tied to the main story, and are underdeveloped. Sinanthropus simply drops out of the book halfway through, while Hobo and Shoshana are left with an unresolved cliffhanger. Although this phase of Caitlin’s story is settled, it is clear that her relationship with the online entity will continue and become more complicated. Thus, as a stand-alone book Wake is only partly successful.

The theme of the novel is the awakening of consciousness. Caitlin’s relationship with the online entity and its evolution of self-identity is paralleled with the awakening of consciousness through language that Helen Keller experienced under the guidance of Anne Sullivan. Some fair amount of discussion is made of a theory that postulates that human consciousness really hasn’t existed until historical times, not until the left and right halves of the brain evolved into an integrated whole. The subplot with Hobo shows a similar awakening of consciousness.

I recommend Wake, but be prepared to have a lot of unanswered questions. Watch is the second volume of the www trilogy, and Wonder is the third volume.

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