Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: WWW:Wake, by Robert J. Sawyer

A blind girl, an AI, and a sapient ape in a SF mishmash.


Ace, 2009, 354 pages

Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a genius at math - and blind. Still, she can surf the net with the best of them, following its complex paths clearly in her mind.

But Caitlin's brain long ago co-opted her primary visual cortex to help her navigate online. So when she receives an implant to restore her sight, instead of seeing reality, the landscape of the World Wide Web explodes into her consciousness, spreading out all around her in a riot of colors and shapes.

While exploring this amazing realm, she discovers something - some other - lurking in the background. And it's getting more and more intelligent with each passing day.

Robert J. Sawyer writes novels that read like classic science fiction updated with modern tropes and contemporary science. Which is good when it works, but it also makes them little literary time capsules, like a lot of the old Asimovian and Heinleinian stuff. Unfortunately, Sawyer is no Heinlein or Asimov, so this was only an okay story. It's the first part of a trilogy, and I may read the rest eventually but it did not grab me.

The first problem is the main character, Caitlin. Caitlin is a teenage girl, and Sawyer goes out of his way to write her talking and acting like a teenage girl. But a very smart teenage girl, of course. So she alternates between being a math prodigy (with the online nickname of "Calcu-Lass") and a typical girl mooning over the school hunk and complaining about her embarrassing parents.

I have seen worse depictions of teenage girls written by middle-aged men (I'm looking at you, Heinlein), but Caitlin didn't seem entirely believable to this middle-aged man. She's just a little too perky and smart and perfect and teeny.

Caitlin is blind, so the first of the three main threads in this book concerns her gaining vision thanks to an experiment by a kindly Japanese scientist who figures out how to tap into her visual cortex. I can't speak to the authenticity of her depiction as a blind person learning to see, but the plot device here is that somehow, Caitlin also becomes able to "see" the World Wide Web.

What she discovers is that there is a nascent artificial intelligence "awakening" within the web. So there are many predictable parallels between Caitlin learning to correlate new visual images with things she's known her entire life, and the entity becoming aware of a reality outside itself.

The third thread doesn't even connect to the first two threads at all — it's the story of a chimp-bonobono hybrid demonstrating unusual intelligence. I.e., possibly a third type of "awakening" of a sapient being. This subplot doesn't go anywhere — it's obviously meant to develop events for the next book. This annoyed me because even if you are writing the first book in a series, you should make each one deliver some kind of payoff.

Wake is already dated — Sawyer drops a lot of real names for verisimilitude, so there are frequent references to Google, Wikipedia, LiveJournal (!) and iPod Shuffles (!), as well as contemporary celebrities, writers, and politicians. Written in 2009, that means this book is already referring to things a lot of teenagers will barely be familiar with ("Wait, people still use LiveJournal?"), and in ten years, people are going to be saying "What's that?" about a lot of his tech and brand references.

Basically, this entire book was setup for the real storyline, which is about the birth of a self-aware AI. As a Young Adult novel, I don't know how relatable Caitlin is to the average girl, but as a science fiction novel, I felt it was rather flat and lacking in drama. It was an okay read, but the rest of the series isn't being bumped to the front of my TBR list.

Rating: 6/10.

Also by Robert J. Sawyer: My review of Factoring Humanity.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, robert j. sawyer, science fiction, young adult

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